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Gift of a Mother

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This is Berk, boasting the kind of balmy, fun-in-the-sun climate that will give you frostbite on your spleen. Ironically, this place feels the warmest when the Winter begins to lay her claim on the land. This is when we get together to celebrate our annual holiday – the Snoggletog. While the name may be stupid, it brings to our minds the image of blazing fire, sweet mead, and dancing to the lively music. This year’s Snoggletog is going to be the first one since we made peace with dragons. Also, the first one I made peace with humanity. Needless to say, I am pretty excited.

Also, about to learn I would be making last minute preparations for this great event.

(…)

Hiccup’s parents were not at all surprised when they woke up and discovered their son gone. The boy had developed a habit of taking flights first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening – proving that, despite their concerns, he could handle himself just fine. His leg still hurt, and joints were far from responsive to his will, but flying with Toothless made him feel infinitely better – and provided opportunities to train his weakened leg muscles. Faced with such logic, Valka and Stoick couldn’t bring themselves to limit their son’s endeavors. Still, Valka would discretely send Cloudjumper after Hiccup. Just in case.

This morning, however, took an unexpected turn. A sudden crack stole Valka’s attention away from the porridge she was mixing and Stoick’s from the piece of wood he was carving. Into the house hastily came their son.

“The Sparrowhawk is coming” announced Hiccup, wasting no time. The revelation caused Stoick to stand from his chair.

“Are you sure?” the chief asked, shaken.

“She’ll be here in three hours, if I’m right” confirmed Hiccup, coming further into the room, his dragon Toothless trotting behind him. Stoick sighed heavily.

“Bog Burglars” he muttered, irritated, returning to his seat. “They never bother giving a notice in advance”

Valka, who had been mixing the porridge in the cauldron above the hearth, was beginning to worry. “Are we going to have problems?” she asked. Standing next to her, Toothless sniffed at the content of the cauldron and licked his muzzle.

“Not really” replied Stoick. “The Bogs and us get along well enough. They won’t be bothered by our alliance with the dragons. They’re probably going to do what they always do: tease the men and lead the girls astray. Possibly steal some valuables, but people know to be extra cautious around them”

Valka nodded in understanding. It seemed that their guests were a nuisance, but otherwise harmless. It was good to know.

A loud slurp startled her. Right next to her the Night Fury was sucking in the porridge she had been cooking.

“Toothless!” she scolded, hitting the dragon with a ladle. The Night Fury stepped back, shaking his head. Valka stared into the cauldron, only to discover that Toothless had managed to empty it in split seconds. Annoyed, she looked up at the culprit.

“Oh Toothless, this was our breakfast” groaned Valka. The dragon tilted his head and licked his muzzle. He stepped towards the cauldron and let out the groaning noises, signalizing the upcoming regurgitation. The woman hurriedly pushed him away.

“No-no-no, it’s okay, boy” she assured hastily. “You may keep it. I’ll just make a new batch”

Toothless beamed and licked his muzzle again. He very much enjoyed Valka’s cooking.

An impatient growl came from the outside. Cloudjumper, who was too big to fit into the house, was letting his presence be known.

“It seems Cloudjumper is hungry” Valka told Toothless, mentally congratulating her loyal dragon for the timing. “Go and share with him” she suggested, hopping to the door and holding it open for the dragon. The Night Fury obediently rushed outside. Valka closed the door behind him and sighed. She could not be upset with Toothless – not really. He was just too adorable. She’ll have to keep in mind to always cook a little bit more, that’s all.

The woman headed towards the hearth, thinking what else she could cook today. However, before she reached her target, she found herself being gently lead around it by her nervously smiling son.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll take care of that” he assured, directing her to the table.

“But…”

“No buts” insisted Hiccup, sitting his mother at the chair his father had obligingly pulled. “It’s my dragon who ate our breakfast so it’s my responsibility to make a new one”

“Exactly” Stoick supported his son, visibly pleased. “Everybody must clean his own dragon’s mess”

“Absolutely” agreed Hiccup eagerly, moving to the cauldron. “I’m making pancakes, what do you say?”

“I say: bring it on, son” Stoick beamed in approval, returning to his seat. Then slapped himself in the face and rushed back up, grabbing a bucket from the table. “Oh, I forgot” he said, handing the bucket to Hiccup. “Your mother and I saved it for you”

“Oh, right” said Hiccup, rolling up his sleeves. Inside the bucket was water with addition of chestnut soap. Stoick and Valka has used it to wash their hands, and now their son did the same. Quickly done, he headed for the supply drawer, from where he retrieved some eggs and milk.

Valka watched all this, silently admitting defeat. She realized her cooking left much to be desired. It simply wasn’t her forte, has never been. Still, it was kinda disappointing that her sincerest efforts to improve backfired. “I DID remember to leave the grains in water for the night this time” she moaned, crossing her arms. Next instant she felt her husband’s hand on her shoulder.

“Aw, don’t be sad, my dear” said Stoick comfortingly. “You have so many talents that having one more would make you too good to exist”

“Well said” applauded Hiccup, cracking eggs into a bowl.

Their words and sincere smiles did cheer Valka up. “Flatterers” she chuckled, pleased with her family and herself. “You know you won’t discourage me from trying, do you?”

“Mom, you really don’t have to” insisted Hiccup, mixing the batter in the bowl. “Gobber and I have it all under control”

“What about when you become chief, my little chef?” teased Valka. “Gobber alone may not manage to feed your growing family”

“Oh, good point!” agreed Stoick eagerly. “We must be prepared for the invasion of little Haddocks” he chuckled, moving his chair closer to his wife’s and pressing his head against hers. Valka absorbed his affection with a chuckle.

“Dear, we shouldn’t be counting dragons before they hatch”

“One can at least dream, Val. Berk really could use more of…” he indicated their son with a cunning smirk, “THIS”

Hiccup rolled his eyes. “Sir, it is a dangerous game you’re playing” he waved the ladle warningly at his father. “It is YOUR food I am preparing here”

“Keep at it, son” replied Stoick cheerfully. “We are all going to need some energy to deal with our guests”

Hiccup shook his head in irritation before returning his attention to the business at hand. “You know, Dad” he spoke up, pouring a portion of batter on the frying pan. “Snoggletog’s soon. Perhaps this is why Bloodybee’s coming. To spend it with her family”

Stoick snorted. “Boy, do you really think that swimming blight considers Snotlout and Spitelout her family? She’d sacrifice the both of them to save her own skin, without a second thought. That’s the way they are, the Bog Burglars”

“Not all of them, Dad” insisted Hiccup, somehow offended, flipping the pancake over. “Remember Camicazi? She’s not so bad”

Stoick let out an exasperated sigh. “Son, this is the girl who made you eat her mud pies. The girl who made you believe the shirt she’s given you was magical and would protect you from all harm. I’m also willing to bet my fastest ship that the intense itching that tormented Dagur throughout the Thing two years ago was her doing”

Having slid the pancake onto a plate, Hiccup scratched the back of his head. “Well, yeah, she did sneak into his room and rub some spices into his underwear” he admitted reluctantly. “BUT she did it so he would stop bothering me. Us. The heirs. Without him trying to kill us, the rest of us could enjoy ourselves in peace. Cami deserves some credit” he insisted, pouring a new portion of batter onto the pan.

“SOME being the key word, Hiccup” commented Stoick. “This girl’s a loose cannon. You never know what’s going on under that lightening-stricken head of hers”

Hiccup sent his father a look full of indignation. “Well, alright, she IS a little crazy” he groaned. “But she’s still a good friend” he waved the ladle at Stoick for emphasis. It did little to impress the chief.

“Son, Bog Burglars don’t have friends. Only people they haven’t burgled yet” claimed Stoick.

Hiccup let out an exasperated sigh and looked at the roof, as if asking gods for strength. He then returned his attention back to the pancake that was in need of being flipped. Meanwhile Valka was feeling more and more like a warrior who arrived at the battlefield without an armor. Each sentence her husband and son exchanged pushed her further and further away from them. Their life. Their affairs. Everything she missed.

Shaking the guilt away, the woman decided to cut in. She could either sulk in the depths of misery or bounce from its bottom and swim back to the surface. And she’ll be damned if it’s the former.

“So” she started, getting her men’s attention. “This Camicazi is…?”

“Big-Boobied Bertha’s daughter” explained Stoick. “The future chief of the Bog Burglars. Also, quite a nuisance”

Hiccup sent him an offended look.

“And Bloodybee…?” Valka asked on.

“One of Big-Boobied Bertha’s naval commanders. Sails all over the Archipelago and beyond, stealing everything that could come of use to the tribe” explained Stoick. Then, almost as an afterthought, he threw in a rather spicy detail. “She’s also Spitelout’s lover”

“Oh”

This was quite a revelation. Not because Stoick’s stepbrother had a Bog Burglar lover – it wasn’t so uncommon among the top ranking Viking warriors. Valka vaguely remembered him boasting about the woman and the children she had promised to bear him. What amazed her was the fact that the Bog Burglar in question apparently kept in touch with Spitelout once their mating agreement was fulfilled – THAT was rather uncommon.

“Is she” asked Valka, “THE Bog Burglar he boasted about all these years ago? Snotlout’s mother?”

“The very same” confirmed Stoick. “They could never deny the relationship, the boy is just as defiant, insolent and full of himself as his mother. You’ll see for yourself once you meet her”

“Incredible” commented Valka, pleasantly surprised. “They’ve kept in touch all these years. I guess even a Bog Burglar can’t be parted from her son forever”

Stoick sighed sadly. “Val, Bloodybee did not even shed a tear when she came to leave Snotlout with his father. The moment she shoved the boy into his grandmother’s arms, she lost interest in him. He cried and cried like a gutted pig, and she ignored him, just like this.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis. “The way she sees it, Snotlout is only Spitelout’s child, while Avalanche – that’s their daughter – is only hers. When the four of them meet – which they do once in a blue moon – the kids show off, fight, make stupid contests, and the parents brag about their achievements. Everything’s a game for them. No matter how you look at it, they are not a normal family”

The vision Stoick painted in Valka’s head saddened her. Yet, she could not bring herself to voice criticism of Spitelout and Bloodybee’s parenting style. Once in a blue moon they might meet, use their children as bragging chips they might, but perhaps this family dynamic works for them. At least Snotlout and Avalanche know they are a brother and sister, know who their parents are, know who THEY are. Each parent may only have a real bond with one child, but surely expresses certain pride in having participated in the creation of the other. Spitelout did claim having a Bog daughter would be a badge of honor to him. This kind of parental love was more than Hiccup has had until recently.

In the end, Valka summed her thought in as innocent a question as she could come up with. “Are they really that much worse than we are?” she asked her husband. He replied with a kind-hearted smile.

“Let me put it this way, my love: our family may not be perfect, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it”

His most sultry expression left no doubt that he meant it. For such a giant of a man, he showed an incredible talent in making himself look adorable. Valka almost awed at the sight.

A loud thud of a plate against the table reminded the couple that they weren’t alone.

“Breakfast’s served” announced Hiccup, upon which he started to distribute the pancakes between his parents. He then sat down with his own share in front of him, and gave his father a rather disappointed look.

“You are not being entirely truthful, Dad” he insisted. “Bloodybee did not just dump Snotlout at Berk. She stayed for six months to nurse him. And when she learned that Mom was taken by dragons, she offered to nurse me as well”

“She did?” asked Valka, surprised.

“Yes” sighed Stoick. “And that’s the only reason I tolerated her on my island. My stepmother hated her with burning passion”

That piece of information amused his wife. “With all due respect, darling, your stepmother did not think much of me, either”

“True enough” admitted Stoick reluctantly. “I doubt there was a woman she’d be happy to see beside either Spitelout or myself. Some mothers are like this”

“I hope to be better than this” said Valka, turning to her son with affection. “Hiccup, as far as I’m concerned, you can marry whoever you want. As long as you love her, I’m going to be happy for you”

“Thanks, Mom” said Hiccup.

“As for me” said Stoick, “I agree with your mother. BUT if you ever let yourself be used by a Bog Burglar, I’m disowning you”

Hiccup groaned, rolling his eyes. “Oh, Da-ad! You’re making me lose my appetite!”

“I mean it, Hiccup” Stoick continued. “Over my dead body will I allow my grandchildren to be brought up away from Berk. Horrendous Haddocks, no matter what gender, belong HERE. Not to Bog Isles, not anywhere else. HERE. Do you understand, son?”

“Dad, are you sure you don’t want to talk about something else? Like your plans for the next Thing?”

“DO YOU?”

Hiccup sighed in resignation. “Yes, Dad”

“Good” said Stoick, pleased. “I don’t think I could survive having to share my grandbabies with Big-Boobied Bertha”

Hiccup rose from his chair in disgust. “Aaand you’ve done it” he moaned, heading for the door. It appeared that having breakfast like a normal family was too much to ask in this house.

Following the boy’s departure, Stoick happily slid the remaining of his plate onto his own. Would be a pity is it got wasted.

“Aw, Val. Imagine the grandbabies” the chief mused before taking another bite.

Valka smiled fondly. There was nothing she could do but thank all deities in existence for her wonderful family. And pray they would all have many, many years together.

Chapter Text

Stoick had the village mobilized before it became apparent who exactly was coming for a visit. Hearths were lit in the Mead Hall, meat and alcohol brought from the storage rooms, people instructed to keep their valuables under lock and key. The common folk was happy – the arrival of Bog Burglars promised a feast, tales of heroic feats and lots of friendly competitions. It would be a big, loud warm-up before the upcoming Winter Holiday.

The real uproar rose the moment the ship appeared on the horizon. A sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts, definitely not propelled by traders or tourists. As it neared itself to the harbor, it became apparent that it was indeed the Sparrowhawk – a part of the Bog Burglar fleet. Just as Hiccup had claimed.

The chief and his family came to the docks to greet the guests, looking as presentable as the time allowed. Armors wiped clean, hair comber and re-braided, heads held high. Dragons were instructed to keep the distance, so not to intimidate the Bog Burglars.

Valka was slightly nervous. It’s been ages since she last had to fulfill a representative role beside her husband. Back before she was taken by Cloudjumper, her job was mostly to look good and keep her mouth shut while Stoick handled everything. This time she would be expected to take on a more active approach.

“Bloodybee and her crew will be all over you” Stoick warned her. “Like a swarm of bees, really. They will be asking inappropriate questions, making inappropriate jokes, and gods only know what else. If they ask you about the dragons – and I’m sure they will – be very selective about what you tell them. We don’t want all of our secrets out just yet”

“Of course” nodded Valka, doing her best to keep her anxiety in check. A whole flock of curious dragons she could manage just fine. She’s had young hatchling nib at her hair, lick wax from her ears and startle her when she satisfied her physiological needs. Surely a crew of Bog Burglars couldn’t be more nosy than this?

“Outta my way!” yelled Snotlout, violently showing Hiccup aside. The bigger boy rushed to the front, his gaze on the approaching ship. He was wearing all of his medals and his most excited expression. He was immediately joined by his father, who looked just as excited and even more festive. Ceremonial belt, scabbard of exquisite workmanship, even his best cape – which he hardly ever wore, as it got in the way.

“Oh, nice outfits there, guys” commented Hiccup sarcastically. “One could think you were the chief and the heir of this tribe”

“I know, right?” exclaimed Snotlout joyfully. “These Bogs will be gathering their jaws from the floor! Just watch!”

The boy spat into his hands and wiped his face with them. Hiccup rolled his eyes.

“Careful not to overdo it, Spitelout” Stoick teased his stepbrother. “Bloodybee just might think you care about her”

Spitelout waved his hand dismissively. “Neh, Bibi couldn’t care less what I look like. She’s still going to make a show out of praising me in front of her crew. The thing is, if I don’t look my best, well, those girls just might think their Captain is swept off her feet just like that” he snapped his fingers for emphasis. “It would be a shame if her reputation suffered just because she’s SO into me, you know” he grinned, full of himself.

“Oh” Stoick grinned back. “So you DO care about her”

The remark did little to deprive the younger man of his confident smirk. “The way I see it, Stoick, a woman who churns out such strapping heirs deserves SOME consideration” he said, petting his son’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Oh, but of course” said Stoick. “But a woman, mind you, who churns out such one of a kind heirs…” he playfully ruffed the hair on top of Hiccup’s head, “…deserves a ballad be composed to praise her achievements” he regarded his wife with affection. “How would you like that, Val?”

Valka forced a smile. It irked her to have herself and her child objectified like this. Judging from the discomfort on Hiccup’s face, he shared the sentiment. Still, there was no helping it. It was quite obvious Stoick had meant to express how proud he was of his family, and didn’t realize said family could be hurt by his words. He’d probably be bewildered if she told him he’d just implied that giving birth to Hiccup was her biggest achievement. Now, the idea was funny indeed.

Meanwhile Spitelout and Snotlout were exchanging meaningful gazes and regarding Hiccup with smirks of superiority. “’One of a kind’ describes Hiccup perfectly” said Spitelout, and his tone left no doubt that he interpreted ‘one of a kind’ as ‘weird’ and ‘not a proper Viking’. Hiccup and Valka responded in bitter grimaces, but Stoick remained perfectly oblivious to the tension. Maybe because his attention drifted to the ship, which was coming to a halt just outside the harbor.

Now that the Sparrowhawk was practically at the threshold of Berk, it was time for contact to be made. From the ship a figure emerged, standing confidently on the edge of the board. A short, pleasingly plump woman with noticeable breasts and wide hips. Her hair was jet black, ragged on the sides, with longer streaks on the top. She wore a protector on her right arm, ending in three steel claws on top of her right hand. With her left hand she saluted Stoick, smiling slyly.

“Chief of Berk!” she exclaimed. “Captain Bloodybee the Steelsting of the Sparrowhawk requests permission to dock!”

“How many in your crew, Captain?” Stoick called to her loudly.

“25, including myself!”

“How long do you intend on staying?”

“Until Snoggletog, Sir!”

“Purpose of visit?”

“To have some fun, Sir! Oh, and to verify the rumors concerning your dragons and all, but that would be our side-quest” the captain added almost like an afterthought, waving her hand dismissively. “Big-Boobied Bertha sees no need for drastic measures“

“Observe all you want, Captain” said Stoick encouragingly. “Here, on Berk, we’ve got nothing to hide. Your chief may come and see it for herself, if she cannot wait till the next Thing”

“I’ll be sure to tell her that, Sir”

“Splendid!” the chief clapped his hands. “You may dock your ship now! And greet your family”

“Right away!” Bloodybee turned to her crew. “Girls, let’s dock this baby!”

A couple of burly women positioned themselves at the side of the ship, facing its inside. Another group of women – captain included – took a take-off run and soared into the air, bouncing from the supporting palms of their comrades. They landed gracefully on the dock and immediately begun to pull the lines they had been holding – thus pulling the ship closer. The Sparrowhawk was safely docked mere moments later.

As her crew secured the footbridge, the captain headed towards the Berkian authorities. Spitelout stepped forwards to meet her, holding out his left hand and removing his helmet with his right. The two of them beamed as they exchanged a handshake. It quickly evolved from the one in which you embrace your partner’s whole hand to the one in which you embrace the partner’s thumb. Then they bumped their fists and rose them to their mouth, as if pretending to drink from imaginary cups. Finally they embraced each other tightly.

“Nice to see you, saucy wench” Spitelout whispered affectionately.

“Likewise, sweet scamp” replied the woman, just as affectionately.

The other Bog Burglars snickered at the scene.

“Could it be?” teased one of the women. “The bloodthirsty Bloodybee…”

“…melting like bee wax in the arms of her hot stud” finished another woman, leaning against her predecessor. The comment earned quite a laughter from the crew. It seemed they had no qualms about making fun of their superior. Judging from said superior’s confident smirk, she didn’t mind at all.

“Oh, ‘hot stud’ doesn’t even begin to describe him” Bloodybee grinned at her crew. “He’s the second most important man on this island!” she exclaimed proudly. “You want to beat that, you’d have to milk the chief himself!”

“I beg your pardon!” revolted Stoick.

“What?” the woman shrugged her shoulders. “I’m acknowledging your status. That’s a complement!”

Stoick might have expressed some more annoyance, but he was disturbed by his brother’s joyful cry.

“Avalanche!”

A girl, almost as wide as she was tall, bounced down the footboard. She had a wild mess of jet black hair, a nose pretty much like that of a pig, and small, narrow eyes, that sparkled with evil intentions. She rushed towards her father, who knelt to embrace her. However, before his arms could close around her, she leapt, bounced from his shoulders, and landed behind him. “Hah!” she cried, showing off Spitelout’s helmet in one hand and a sack in the other. The Bog Burglars cheered and the girl bowed, ravishing the attention. Spitelout got back to his feet, regarding his daughter with a mixture of pride and cunningness.

“Nice nicking, Avalanche. You’ve just become the first Bog Burglar to have stolen dragon dung ever” he told her with mock praise. The smile on the girl’s face vanished as she untied the sack.

“Yuck!” she cried, immediately throwing the sack into the sea. The crowd laughed. Avalanche was confused for a moment, before growing red with shame and anger. She considered her father with a particularly strong grudge, but before she could voice it, her mother pat her strongly on the back, throwing her off balance.

“Hah! He’s got you there, snowflake!” exclaimed Bloodybee, seemingly amused with her daughter’s misfortune, using the chance to retrieve Spitelout’s helmet and toss it back to him. Avalanche grimaced in indignation, but the captain was already moving over to her other child – who was puffing out his chest in anticipation of her praise. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Now, Snotlout, is this a new medal I see on you, son?” remarked Bloodybee, much to the boy’s delight.

“So you’ve noticed? It’s from the latest Thawfest!” Snotlout beamed. “You should have been there, Mom! I totally crushed the competition! As always!”

“Actually” remarked Hiccup, “Astrid beat you in axe throwing”

Snotlout glared at him in indignation. “How would you know that, Hiccup? You fell flat on your face while trying to throw yours!”

The crowd snorted at the remark. Avalanche exploded with particularly obnoxious laughter, as if her brother had cracked the best joke ever. Spitelout and Bloodybee were patting their son’s shoulders and swelling with pride, which he hungrily absorbed. It seemed that the whole black haired and blue eyed family considered insolence a desirable trait.

Valka had mixed feelings. Competiveness and a crude sense of humor were a part of their culture, but her motherly instincts told her she should defend her child somehow. She looked at Stoick. He mouthed ‘Don’t’. She looked at Hiccup. The boy did frown at Spitelout’s family, but quickly cleared the hurt from his face, displaying a mock-grin.

“Laugh while you still can, Snotlout. The next Thawfest Games are going to include dragons, and dragons are MY specialty” he pointed himself, puffing out his chest. “So, auntie” he turned to Bloodybee, “by all means, do come along. Once Toothless and I are through with him, Snotlout’s going to need a shoulder to cry on”

Stoick smiled widely, proud to see his son stand up for himself. Spitelout and Snotlout frowned. Bloodybee giggled in amusement.

“Well, well, well. Somebody’s finally grown a pair” she regarded her ‘nephew’ with fondness “Good. If you want to lead a tribe, kiddo, you better grow big, hairy balls” she clenched her fist and swung it down with each word for emphasis, finishing with a harsh punch to Hiccup’s chest. The boy would have tripped if his mother hadn’t caught him.

Avalanche snickered at this. “One thing that’s big about him is his mouth, if you ask me”

“I beg your pardon!” revolted Hiccup, breaking out of Valka’s embrace. His reaction seemed to have pleased the girl.

“Why?” she teased. “You just said you expect your dragon to win your battles for you. That’s cowardice. And stupidity. Even I know it’s warriors who win battles, not their swords”

Valka felt she should correct the beliefs displayed by this child. If she compared dragons to weapons, she obviously was in need of education. Surprisingly, the girl’s mother seemed to be of the same opinion.

“I wouldn’t quite agree with you, Avalanche” she told her daughter. “Seems to me dragons are more like ships than swords”

That got Valka curious. Perhaps she has written Bloodybee’s emotional intelligence off too soon?

Avalanche raised her brows. “Like ships?”

“Yeah” nodded Bloodybee. “Think about it. A ship can carry you across the sea, but it can also take you under the sea. You need to know how to steer it, how to maintain it, you need to be able to navigate and constantly monitor the weather. Once you leave the mainland you risk facing storms, currents, icebergs, all sorts of dangers. It takes knowledge, strength, and humility to survive at the sea”

With this explanation, Valka’s faith in Bloodybee’s parenting skills was restored. The Bog Burglar had as much tact and sensitivity as an average Viking warrior, but good will and reason were also there. Which augured well for the future.

While Valka was relieved, Avalanche was confused. “But Mom, how can you be strong and humble at the same time?” she asked.

Bloodybee smiled fondly at her daughter. “That’s precisely the point, Ava. It’s not that easy. That’s why you need to serve on someone else’s ship before you can get one of your own” she ruffled the girl’s hair playfully. “Anyway, I think dragons are like ships. You can ride them, but you need to be careful not to fall. They can fight for you, but they can also hurt you. Thus, dragon riding is a serious business and not a child’s play” the woman moved her sight onto her nephew. “Right, Hiccup?”

“Well, not exactly” said the boy, obviously pleased to be recognized as an expert on dragons. “Dragons are not like swords, or ships. They are intelligent, gentle creatures, with their own, unique personality. It may be hard to earn a dragon’s trust, but once you do, you will have gained a friend for life. This is what Toothless is to me – my best friend”

It was Valka’s turn to swell with pride. Her boy advocated their case with such passion, with such an enthusiasm. His eyes lit up and his voice became animated when dragons were involved. Even if his addressees couldn’t quite grasp the ideas he was trying to implement in their heads, his every word and gesture was loaded with confidence and faith. It was a real pleasure to see him like this.

Perhaps giving birth to him was her greatest achievement after all.

Noticing that Bloodybee and Avalanche are not quite sure what to make of this, Valka decided it may be a good moment to take on her role as the hostess.

“We could show you how much our village benefited since we’ve made peace with dragons. If the chief would allow it” she added, remembering Stoick’s warnings. However, the chief didn’t seem to mind her plan.

“You are the Berk’s Dragon Master, Valka. You have my authorization to act as you see fit in all matters relating to dragons” he told her.

Valka smiled. It felt good to have her husband’s trust. “Thank you, Stoick”

When her attention moved back on the guests, she could see that they were intrigued.

“Oh” said Bloodybee, her curiosity evolving into amusement. “So YOU are that infamous dragon whisperer?”

Valka didn’t like this kind of reaction. She felt as if the Bog Burglar has had a clear idea of what a dragon whisperer should be like, and the real thing turned out to be completely different than the expectation. The chief’s wife supposed she should feel offended, but decided to give the captain a credit of doubt. Until now they’ve only known each other through other people’s testimony. Misconceptions were unavoidable. It was for the best if they tried to get along. Perhaps they could become friends.

With this hope in heart, Valka introduced herself, offering Bloodybee her hand to shake. Only then did it occur to her that she might have made a slip already. She had automatically offered her right hand, and the other woman has so far only used her left. The thing with metal spikes she wore must have been a prosthetic.

Valka considered retracting her hand, but Bloodybee was already removing the claws – with no indication of discomfort whatsoever. Beneath the clawed attachment was a leather protector – which covered most of her forearm – with a metal housing at the base of her hand. A hand that had one whole finger – the thumb. The others were reduced to stumps, ending more or less at the level of the first joint. This very hand she vigorously shoved into Valka’s and clenched as much as the disability allowed her. And smiled broadly as she did.

Relieved that to see she hadn’t hurt her guest after all, Valka thanked the Bog Burglar for nursing Hiccup.

“Oh, don’t mention that” Bloodybee waved her crippled hand dismissively. “The wee thing hardly ate anything. Not like my greedy piglet here. He never knew when to stop” she snickered. “Takes after me”

“He does” confirmed Spitelout, smiling in a meaningful way.

“So you really are the dragon whisperer?” squeaked Avalanche excitedly, shoving herself between her mother and Valka. “And you really did ditch your husband to live with dragons?”

“Watch your tongue!” bellowed Stoick. “It’s my wife you’re talking to!”

“It’s okay, Stoick” Valka hurried to calm her husband down. “She’s not that far away from truth” her attention went back to the girl. “I did NOT ditch my family. Not really” she explained. She had meant it as an introduction to a longer story, the one she’s already told her family and community, but she suddenly lost the drive. She didn’t have to explain herself to a little girl. “It’s complicated” she said finally, deeming it an explanation enough.

“That’s great!” exclaimed Bloodybee. “You’ve still got enough time before the feast to get it all organized in your head! We’d love to hear it all over some good meat and mead!”

Valka’s eyes widened. This didn’t sound good.

“Until then, sister,” the captain poked the chief’s wife on the shoulder, staring at her intensively, “you’re gonna be a good hostess and lead us to the sauna!”

Valka’s eyes widened even more. “Sauna?” she muttered, bewildered.

“Sure!” exclaimed Bloodybee. “We’ve been in the sea for so long, we gotta wash the stench away!” she moved closer and put her arm around the shocked Valka, turning to an equally shocked Stoick. “Rest assured, chief, we’ve brought wares to trade for your hospitality. You may examine them while we get to know your wife” she pulled Valka even closer, smiling widely, much to the horror of both the dragon whisperer and her husband.

“That’s enough!” ordered Stoick, removing the captain’s hand from his wife, who wasted no time to put safe distance between herself and the Bog Burglar. “You and your girls better behave yourselves. Valka hasn’t had much to do with humans in the last couple of years, and I won’t let you harass her”

Bloodybee seemed amused. “Oh, nobody here means her any harm, chief” she assured. “On the contrary, we would be happy to help her…” she made a meaningful pause, “…fill in the gaps in her experience”

“This is precisely what I’m worried about” said Stoick sternly.

The captain’s eyes sparkled with malice. Valka couldn’t help but flinch. Her intuition told her that going into the sauna with a whole crew of Bog Burglars was a very, very bad idea. But then, she also acknowledged that Bloodybee made a valid point. As the chief’s wife, she was supposed to take care of the guests. And prove to her own community that she could manage. That she wasn’t entirely reverted to wilderness, like some of the Berkians claimed. She had to show she cared enough to try and fit in.

So, although she was likely to regret it quite soon, Valka touched her husband’s shoulder reassuringly. “It’s okay, Stoick. I can handle this”

He didn’t seem entirely convinced. “You sure?”

“Yes” she nodded. “I will be fine. Trust me”

She could see he would have preferred to keep her out of harm’s way, and she was glad she could trust him to protect her. Still, what she needed now was encouragements, not protection. Stoick acknowledged that.

“Fine” he said. Then lowered his head and added in a whisper: “Though you might want to ask Decay to watch over your clothes while you’re in there. The Bogs just might decide you don’t need all these spikes in your protectors”

Valka did her best to crack a smile. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to have Cloudjumper snatch her from the ground and go someplace far away, where she knew what to expect. Humans could be terrifying.

Chapter Text

The Great Hall was easily the most important location on the entire island of Berk. It was there that the whole tribe gathered to discuss important issues, celebrate, and survive Devastating Winter. As Devastating Winter could last for months, the Great Hall had spacious cellars, adjusted to store big amounts of food and drink. Needless to say, there was also access to fresh water, which flowed through the sturdy rocks like blood. Though it was often doomed to freeze the moment it reached the surface, it was perfectly usable to those who sought refuge within the mountain. Thus, this was where the sauna was located.

Despite Valka’s worries, the Bog Burglars did not seem to be interested in anything but the much needed relax. It was without hesitation that they stored their clothes, weapons, and prosthetics – If they had any – in the wicker baskets. Everybody was eager to sprinkle herself and her comrades with cold water. Most accepted the drinking water prepared by Decay – a housewife in charge of the Great Hall maintenance. The crew members helped each other get clean, used the chestnut soap abundantly and had a great time. The idyllic scene of all these women rubbing each other’s back, smiling and breathing sighs of relief improved Valka’s mood. These women were not at all different from the locals. It seemed she had nothing to worry about after all.

So she did think even when they sat down in the actual sauna. Even when Bloodybee, who sat next to her, spoke up.

“Why’d you keep the pin, of all things? If we were to steal anything, we’d go for the belt buckle”

She was referring to the wooden pin with which Valka secured her chest binding. Right now it was tied to its owner’s wrist.

“Oh. It’s a gift from Stoick” explained Valka, looking at the small object with affection. “It means a lot to me”

There was a whole story behind the pin, but the chief’s wife was not about to share it with just anybody. It would remain her and Stoick’s little secret.

Surprisingly, Bloodybee seemed touched with the simply explanation. “Aw, how sweet” she cooed and smiled disarmingly. “Y’know,” she continued, suddenly inspired, “Spitelout once sent me a wooden carving to remember him by, too”

“Oh, he did?” asked Valka, amazed. She didn’t think Spitelout was this romantic.

“Yeah” nodded Bloodybee. “In return, I’ve sent him a five and a half page long description of how I used it. I purposefully finished with the mother of all cliffhangers. And guess what?” she smiled cunningly at Valka, paying no attention to the other woman’s troubled expression, “He arrived at my doorsteps not a week later. Boy, was he blowing steam! We worked on the ending together! By the time we were done, the whole place looked like a sauna!” she giggled, sincerely amused. Sitting next to her, Valka felt her cheeks flush. She did not expect THESE subjects THIS fast. That didn’t augur well.

Especially given she was the only one who seemed uncomfortable with discussing such topics.

“I could hear you two streets down, captain!” shouted one of the Bogs accusingly.

“Envious much, officer?” Bloodybee smirked at her subordinate, pleased with herself.

“Right on, captain!” yelled another woman happily. “She’s been salivating over your hot stud ever since!”

“Like hell I did!” revolted the officer, jumping to her feet. “I never go after men shorter than myself!”

The other woman shrugged her shoulders. “If you say so”

“I DO say so!” insisted the officer, threatening her merry comrade with her finger. The crew giggled, and the captain the loudest of them all.

“Hah! You know very well I don’t mind you going after Spitelout, girls. It’s not like he has my name tattooed on his ass. Yet” she grinned.

“Are you serious?” asked Valka in disbelief.

“Yeah” nodded Bloodybee casually. “Though I’m sure I could tattoo whatever part of him I fancy without him knowing about it”

Valka eyed her strictly. “That’s not what I meant”

“I know what you meant. I’m not as dumb as my son” assured the captain, mildly annoyed. She shifted on her towel towards the dragon whisperer, acknowledging that a more serious approach was needed. “Look, Valka” she spoke calmly, “We, Bog Burglars, are sisters. We never let a man come between us. No matter their looks, status, wealth, or the kids they gave us. Sisters before misters”

“Sisters before misters!” yelled all the Bog Burglars enthusiastically.

Valka sighed. She probably shouldn’t be surprised. These women were known for taking men whenever they wanted, in any number they wanted, but she had assumed they at least did not go for men already claimed by their comrades. There had to be some sort of loyalty among them.

Well, there was – only that their definition of it did not exactly match hers.

“Yes, I get that. I suppose” replied Valka, mentally admitting defeat. “You have to care for your own tribe first of all”

Bloodybee nodded in acknowledgement, smiling widely. “Right on, sister. A tribe is a hive and we are the bees. A single bee may not do much harm, but a whole swarm could kill a hornet. In fact, that’s why my mother named me Bloodybee. To remind me how important it is to stick with my own kind”

“Sisters before misters!” yelled her crew again.

“Yeah!” yelled the captain back.

“It does make sense when you put it that way” admitted Valka unsurely. “Although it must be hard, having to stay away from your own son”

She thought that, at very least, the motherly instincts were universal in all cultures. Bloodybee crushed those beliefs by waving her hand dismissively.

“Neh, not a tiny bit. The boy lives in the kind of tribe that will help him grow into a great man. He has a respectable name, hell lot of status, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t end up with a rank as high as his father’s. Really, if I were to be more involved with his life, I’d probably screw it all up for him. Better to keep things the way they are. Wouldn’t you agree, Valka?”

Valka wasn’t sure what to think. The Bog Burglar said all this without any hesitation, without a trace of doubt. She really did seem not to have any regrets.

But then, she’s had a lot of time to come to terms with the situation. To convince herself that Snotlout was doing just fine without her. She’s probably known her whole life long she wouldn’t be allowed to keep a male child, if she had any. She was prepared.

Still, she might have cried at first. She might have missed him. Missed him so much it kept her awake for night after night until she had ran out of tears. Maybe she’d remember him in the most random moments and have to smash everything around to calm herself down. Maybe she had to constantly repeat that one line: ‘He’s better off without me’ until she finally believed herself.

Maybe she was just like Valka.

The thought warmed the dragon lady’s heart.

“Yes, I can see your point” she said, feeling a sudden connection to Bloodybee. “I know how hard it is, having to stay away from your family for the sake of greater good”

To her utter surprise the sauna exploded with laughter.

“What?” demanded Valka, bewildered. “What’s so funny?”

Bloodybee slapped her vigorously on the back.

“Oh, quit it, dragon girl! Ain’t nobody here gonna condemn ya, no need to put that wool over our eyes! EMBRACE what you are, just like we do!”

The comment was followed by a chorus of praise: “Yeah!”, “Well said!”, “Mead for the girl!”. All to Valka’s further confusion.

“What?” she mumbled.

Bloodybee considered her with a warm expression. “Sister,” she begun in a sweet, almost motherly tone, “my boys wrote me letters, and I read them to my girls. We know the entire truth. Your tribe thought you were nuts, so you ditched the lot of them and made a life for yourself at the end of the world” a spark of excitement lit the captain’s eyes, her tone became more lively. “All this time you were studying dragons and having a blast while the oafs here got their asses whooped by those overgrown lizards over and over again! And you only ever returned when they were willing to see ya for the wonder ya’re! Girl, you sure showed ‘em!” she exclaimed, patting her astonished interlocutor again.

The applause from the crew was instant.

“Yeah! They wouldn’t let ya be yerself, so off you went!” yelled somebody from the back of the room.

“Kiss my ass, Stoick the Vast!” exclaimed one of the women, jumping to the middle of the room. “Ya clean yer own kitchen while I take over the skies!”

“Yeah!” shouted the crew with delight.

Valka was terrified with the speed with which the things got out of control.

“No!” she cried. “You got it all wrong! I stayed away from my family to protect them!”

Somebody snorted. “Protect them? By turning your nose up at them?”

“Good one, good one!”

“I mean it!” revolted Valka, jumping to her feet. “My husband and son could have died, because I wouldn’t kill a dragon! I was a threat to my family, to my whole village! A peace advocate in a Viking tribe? I was sure they were better off without me!”

She looked from woman to woman, desperately seeking understanding. Only to find nobody was taking her seriously.

“Blah, blah, blah” a voice said behind her. “Your family stood in the way of your hobby, so you turned your back at them. That’s all there is to it”

Valka turned around, exploding with fury. “Stop! Just stop! All of you!” she yelled, her eyes firing hatred at everybody. “You have NO right to judge me!”

“But we aren’t, sister!” assured Bloodybee, walking towards her. “We look up to you!”

“You WHAT?!” snapped Valka.

“Sure!” confirmed Bloodybee, obviously amused. “You personify all of our ideals! Right, girls?”

“Yeah! You chose harsh freedom over peaceful slavery!”

“Took your fate into your own hands!”

“You may well have changed the course of generations!”

“Atta, girl!”

Valka found herself totally at loss. These women were making no sense, no sense at all. Were they really admiring her for abandoning her family? For betraying her tribe? Have they all lost their minds? Or was she imagining all this, because of all this heat? Odin almighty, why couldn’t she just have pretended to have fallen asleep?

“You…” she mumbled, not really sure if she should dwell deeper into this madness, but incapable of retreating, “ you don’t think I was selfish?”

“Oh, we do” said Bloodybee eagerly. “But that’s a good thing”

“Yup” said one of the women. “One can only sacrifice her dreams, passion and health for a moronic husband and ungrateful kids for so long. Sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do to remind herself she’s still a person of her own, not just a house ornament”

Another woman jovially pat her on the back. “Well said, well said!”

Yet another woman spoke up. “Take me, for example. I spent a good portion of my life putting the well being of my family above my own, only to be taken for granted, belittled, and ridiculed. Now that I’m a Bog Burglar I work pretty much as hard as before, but I get to see faraway places, taste the finest wines, and men don’t bother me. Unless I want them to” she winked meaningfully. “Good thing my old man kicked the bucket before me, or I would never have known how precious life can be”

Valka found herself at a total loss. “I can’t believe you. Do you really feel this way? That having a family is a burden, that it’s a good thing to just abandon them and sail away?”

Once again she scanned the crowd, hoping that somebody would prove her wrong. And once again she was answered by the partially amused, partially patronizing captain.

“No, not really. Husbands are a burden, sisters are family. Family is NOT a burden. You understand now?”

Valka did not like this. Did not like that Bloodybee spoke to her in such a patronizing tone, that she considered her with a mixture of amusement and pity. Like a loving, yet dominant older sister, who explained the obvious obviousness to a younger sibling. It disturbed Valka. Disturbed her way to much than it should. This conversation was costing her way too much. But she just had to continue.

“Is that how you feel about Spitelout? About Snotlout?”

It might have been foolish, but she still hoped to move the Bog Burglar’s heart. To get that woman to admit that her son and his father were not something she could exclude from her life just like this. To spot some sort of twitch in her expression which would could be interpreted as regret.

Alas, Bloodybee shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, they are okay people. And good company for most of the time. But by no means as necessary as the air I breathe. I do, of course,” she added hurriedly, “take pride in having such a strapping son, I did push him into this world after all. But his father…” she hesitated, her expression becoming troubled for a split second before she assumed her usual confidence, “his father, you see, is like my prosthetic. I do like it. It serves me well. Makes me feel safe and confident. But, at the end of the day, it’s not my flesh and blood. It’s a gadget I can replace anytime I want. Hell, I could handle myself just fine without a prosthetic. But if I somehow became unable to sail, to burgle, to have adventures, I’d feel as if I lost an entire arm. The good arm, mind you. I don’t think I could handle that” at this point, her expression softened. “I suppose it’s the same for you, isn’t it? You liked your husband enough, but when you had to chose between him and your passion, you chose the passion. Your love for dragons triumphed the one you had for people. And only when you knew people will no longer stay in the way of your passion you allowed them back in your life. Am I right, sister?”

Time stood still. Despite the heat of the room, coldness found its way into Valka’s heart. There were no weapons in the room, but she felt trapped, cornered. By all her regrets and mistakes. There was no way out, nowhere to hide. She had no choice but to be honest with herself.

And, in doing so, cast the finishing blow to her own heart.

“I…” she struggled, avoiding the other woman’s gaze. “I suppose so…”

In her mind, she added: ‘Forgive me, Stoick, Hiccup’

The answer, although so reluctant, earned her the Bog captain’s wholehearted approval. “And this is why I like you so much, Valka. You understand that it’s your actions that define you, not your relationships. You’d make a fine Bog Burglar”

After that Valka spoke no more.

Chapter Text

When the grown women were barely beginning to relax, Avalanche was leaving the sauna in search of cooler air. It was with great relief that she poured a bucket of cold water over her steaming body and emptied the cup offered to her by the servant. How do the adults endure all that heat, how they find pleasure in this torture chamber, she had no idea.

Seeing the girl get dressed, the servant offered to keep her company until the rest of the crew were done. Avalanche bluntly told her that she had no intention of waiting for her mother – who would probably need a couple sessions of cooling and heating to get satisfied – and very much preferred to go out and have some fun. That got the servant seriously worried.

“Child, will you be alright?” she asked, full of concern. Avalanche rolled her eyes.

“I’m not a child, I’m almost eleven” she said, impatiently. “I can gut sheep, skin boars, pick locks, catch fish with a spear, and when I throw a stone, it always lands right where I want it to. And you dare suggest I could get lost on the way to my father’s house, in a village I’ve been to a dozen times before?”

That successfully shot the woman’s trap. And rightfully so. You can’t keep a Bog Burglar in a closed space when so many interesting things are waiting for her on the outside.

Dragons. The unpredictable, ferocious, fire-breathing monsters from the stories she’s heard so many times. Dragons are powerful, so the warriors said, you lose your focus and you may lose your head. Even now, a good two months since the supposed integration of dragons into the Hairy Hooligan tribe, the old convictions were strong in the Bog Burglars. Avalanche herself was reluctant to believe something so big and strong could be controlled by humans. And by what humans – Hiccup – the most pathetic excuse of a Viking ever – despite what Camicazi says – and Snotlout – Avalanche’s brother, who thinks the sun raises and sets on his ass, but is in fact dumber even than an average boy. These two fools are supposedly riding a Night Fury and a Monstrous Nightmare respectively. Seriously, this is madness.

Still, if said madness is reality, then Avalanche was determined to witness it with her own eyes. This was sure to provide her some entertainment, if nothing else.

Once out of the Mead Hall, the girl took a moment to examine the surroundings. She did notice some new constructs – perches for dragons, if she was to judge by the occupants. A couple of them were resting on rooftops, a few more circling in the sky. The people carried on with their daily tasks, showing no signs of stress of the presence of the giant reptiles. Some children even seemed to be playing with a Gronckle. Unbelievable. But how cool.

Suddenly Avalanche’s eyes spotted the real extraordinary thing – her brother Snotlout and cousin Hiccup – riding their dragons in what appeared to be a race above the village. Seemingly heading towards the old dragon killing arena.

Avalanche hopped down the stairs vigorously. If she hurries, she just might catch up with the two idiots. With a little bit of luck she could be riding a dragon before her mother leaves the sauna.

(…)

After a series of barrel rolls and somersaults in the air, accompanied by mad screams, Snotlout directed Hookfang towards the Dragon Academy. Hiccup and Toothless were already heading that way, in a boring, straight fashion. The chief’s son rolled his eyes at the bulkier boy, all to Snotlout’s pride and joy. Hiccup might have had a Night Fury, but he didn’t have the guts to use its full potential. At this rate, the dragon games designed for the upcoming Thawfest will go down in history as Hiccup’s most epic fail. Yeah, their mothers have to see this. Totally.

Happy beyond reason, Snotlout landed. His and Hiccup’s fathers have been watching them, which added to his joy. Nothing like a little quality crowd to witness the sheer wonder he is.

“Woohooo! Way to go, Hookfang!” the boy pat his dragon excitedly. “Keep it up! We’re gonna give those Bogs a show they’ll never forget!”

Snotlout’s father was immediately by his side, beaming with pride. “Right on, son! Soon all of Bog Isles will hear of Snotlout Jorgenson, master of Monstrous Nightmares! And when they do, they’ll tremble!”

“Yeah!” yelled Snotlout, thrilled at the idea. It meant the world to him to know his father was proud of him, but to revoke a similar kind of reaction from his mother was absolutely priceless. The opportunity was just too good to waste.

The two Jorgensons’ daydreaming was brutally interrupted by Hiccup.

“Guys, you get it all wrong!” protested the chief’s son. “We don’t want them to tremble, we want them to be on our side!”

Snotlout sneered at the thinner boy. “Speak for yourself, Hiccup. I want them to hear my name and tremble, ugh ugh!”

Hiccup rolled his eyes. “I hate to break it to you, Snotlout, but it’s not about you. It’s about all of us. As dragon trainers, it is our responsibility to improve the reputation and life quality of all dragons, not just here on Berk, but wherever we only can. The last thing we want is to have our allies get the impression we’re making a dragon army”

Spitelout coughed and covered his mouth to stifle a laugh. “But we ARE making a dragon army” Spitelout told Hiccup mildly. “Or have you forgotten about Drago Bludvist?”

“No, of course not” replied Hiccup, glaring daggers at Snotlout, who was sneering behind his father’s back. “But our priority for now is to get Vikings and dragons to trust each other. We need integration, a change of habits and beliefs, before we even begin training for battle. Otherwise we would be baking a cake with eggs still in shells”

The two Jorgensons exchanged meaningful glances, smiling widely. Whole Hiccup, hiding behind those big words of his. Just like a strutting rooster. How truly pathetic.

Meanwhile Hiccup repressed the urge to yell at the both of them on top of his lungs. How he hated this. Being regarded with pity, as if he were crippled or mentally retarded. After all the hard work he put into educating this society, they still wouldn’t take him seriously. Not even his relatives. This was beyond hopeless.

Worst of all, even his father seemed awkward around him.

“We all appreciate your enthusiasm, son,” started the chief gently, “but you are getting ahead of yourself. Integrating dragons into our tribe has not been easy, and I doubt we will be done anytime soon. And before we’ve gotten our own turf under complete control, we cannot let the other tribes learn too much. I’ve told you before”

He did. They were definitely making progress in the conversations department, for which Hiccup was grateful, but talking to his father still felt like talking to the open sea at times. It seemed like this time would be one of those times.

“Dad, if we are to stand a chance against Drago, we need ALL the tribes to work together” insisted Hiccup, doing his best to appear big and serious. It didn’t work.

“What we need, Hiccup, is to stay ahead of everybody else” replied Stoick. “To establish our position as dragon experts and let everybody know we are not to be messed up with. Otherwise we may not live long enough to face Drago Bludvist”

“So you want them to turn our allies into our slaves?” asked Hiccup in horror. “To have them jump when we tell them and we want to see jumping?”

“That does have a nice ring to it…” admitted Spitelout, scratching his chin.

Meanwhile Stoick sighed heavily.

“Look, Hiccup. We’re Vikings. If we don’t fight dragons, we fight each other. The first and obvious purpose of training dragons is to use them in battle. If you teach anybody from the outside how to get on a dragon’s good side, you can be sure they’ll teach their entire tribe and soon we’ll have to deal with an Archipelago-scale war on the backs of dragons. Is that what you want, son?”

Hiccup stared at him in disbelief. “But… Bog Burglars are our allies…”

“Allies or not, they ARE a different tribe” insisted the chief. “We have to make sure we’re one step ahead of them. We must protect our own”

His son hesitated before asking on. “But what about all these dragons…?”

“WILL. BE. FINE.” Mouthed Stoick, glaring at his offspring dangerously. “They’re dragons, for Thor’s sake. They can hold their own”

Hiccup felt his blood boil. “If mom heard you now…”

“Your mother KNOWS what I think!” exploded Stoick. “And she understands. She realizes very well that the knowledge she gathered on dragons is priceless. That knowledge is power, and the greater the power, the greater the responsibility. The fate of our very world depends on how we deal with this. So, for the good of all Vikings, and all dragons, you will protect our secrets as you would your sister’s purity. Is that clear?”

Hiccup could do nothing but clench his teeth and look down. There he was again, belittled and shoved aside, as if nothing had changed. But then, he shouldn’t be surprised. It was foolish to assume a few dragons could change Berk into the utopia he wanted it be. Or that riding a Night Fury could change him into what was considered a true Viking. Vikings were Vikings and he was himself. Sad, but true.

Hiccup was finally beginning to understand all the concerns his mother has had before coming to Berk. People cannot change, she told him, you can’t make them into something they’re not, better let go of those foolish dreams and save yourself the pain. By gods, she had been right. So right it hurt.

The chief’s son mentally scolded himself. So achieving his goals will be harder than he had assumed. He could handle that. He would work hard and make this island, archipelago and world into one where people and dragons will no longer have to fear each other. He will end their savage ways and bring peace. For his mother. For Toothless. For everyone.

He will. But for now he has to swallow his pride and strategically retreat.

“Yes, Sir” he whispered respectfully, avoiding his father’s eyes.

“Good” grumped Stoick. He has had enough of this conversation and wasn’t going to hide it.

Seeing Hiccup so subdued, Snotlout almost felt pity for him. Almost. In all honesty, the runt had everything he needed to impress his father. To amaze his father. He was just too dumb to take advantage of it. Unlike Snotlout, who was a man of action and squeezed all the benefits he could from the discovery his cousin had made. Yes, Snotlout knew that training dragons offered him possibilities he’d never dream he’d have. All his life he had wanted to be exactly like his father. Now he could very well become more than Spitelout ever was. Perhaps even more than any Jorgenson ever was. So he forged the iron while it was hot, he trained and trained and trained some more, all in the same of securing himself the status he deserved. Status was everything. How come Hiccup, son of a chief, didn’t understand it?

But then, what can you expect from somebody who always let other children steal his toys and push him around? One who prefers to hide in the forest and hunt imaginary creatures than to confront his problems like a Viking should? Hiccup was a hopeless case, always had been. He might have started to show some backbone recently, but he still needed to be controlled by the true Vikings – for his own good and the good of the village. And Snotlout was eager to be the one to keep an eye on the runty future chief. Hiccup will thank him one day, for sure.

Meanwhile Spitelout couldn’t help but tease his stepbrother. “You haven’t been teaching your boy enough, have you, Stoick?”

The chief glared daggers at him and grunted in indignation, but Spitelout knew no real reaction would follow. The chief knew very well he could not defend his son, nor himself. Not without making himself look like an idiot. Spitelout pitied him, in a way. The chief has had been quite popular among the Bog Burglars back in the day. Even Bloodybee had tried to seduce him. Alas, Stoick always refused, saying the only woman he’ll ever sire heirs upon would be his rightfully wedded wife – once he meets her, that is. His resolve had earned him an insane wife and a runty son. In the meantime, Spitelout had a strapping son to carry on his name, a badge of honor in the form of his Bog daughter, and occasional mind-numbing trysts with the most amazing woman he had ever laid his eyes on. What more could a man want?

‘You are a fool, Spitelout’ Stoick had told him once. ‘She’s probably got a different lover on every island she’s ever visited, and each and every one of them thinks he’s the one she fancies the most’

‘Probably’ replied Spitelout easily. ‘But the way I see it, it’s more beneficial to share a good ship with a large crew than to have a wreck all to yourself. Wouldn’t you agree, Stoick?’

The chief had grunted at him in indignation back then. But it was obvious to anybody that Stoick envied his stepbrother and regretted having turned Bloodybee down all these years ago. All to Spitelout’s pride and joy.

“Oh, there you are”

The men turned. Another example of Spitelout’s pride and joy was approaching them vividly.

“Avalanche?” said Spitelout, surprised to see his daughter. “Weren’t you with your mother and the others?”

“Yeah, for two or so minutes” said the girl, grinning. “They can sit and sweat if they want, I’d rather go and sweat on the move”

Her father chuckled. “Right. You never liked sauna, did you?”

Avalanche shook her head. “Not a bit. I’m a Viking. My habitat is coldness. My blood is like the underground stream, and my muscles are like frozen rocks. I could run around naked and still be fighting fit!” she declared proudly, placing her hands on her hips.

“Please don’t” whispered Hiccup.

“Hah!” exclaimed Spitelout. “My blood, my blood!” he whooped and hollered and clapped his daughter on the back. Avalanche grinned, basking in the praise. The way she saw it she was indeed her father’s greatest achievement, something he should be bragging about the most. Nevermind her mother did all the hard work. A praise was a praise, and it pleased her.

Then Hiccup approached her. “But, Ava, did you at least wipe yourself dry?” he asked, concerned. “Too much cold is not good for you either”

Avalanche rolled her eyes. “Hiccup, it’s your smart cousin you’re talking to, the stupid one is right there” she said, pointing at her brother.

“Ey!” revolted Snotlout. “Who do you call stupid, stupid?!”

“Take a guess, stupid!”

“I’ll show you who’s the stupid one, stupid! Hookfang, eat her!” he demanded of his dragon. The Monstrous Nightmare replied by seizing the young Viking into his jaws and pulling him up.

Avalanche’s eyes instantly widened. “Snotlout!” she screamed, rushing to Hookfang. “Stupid dragon, let go of him!” she demanded angrily, grabbing her brother’s legs and pulling hard. The Monstrous Nightmare did as she told him and relaxed his jaws, which resulted in the two siblings falling to the ground. The dragon sneered, finding it amusing.

Snotlout jumped to his feet, eying his dragon dangerously. “I swear, Hookfang! You get in line or I’m roasting you rats no more!”

Hookfang’s eyes widened. All to his rider’s satisfaction. “Yeah, you heard me right, you useless reptile!”

The Monstrous Nightmare snorted in indignation, turned around and hurriedly flew away. Snotlout stared after him in disbelief, before panic consumed him and he called out in terror:

“Hey! I was going to show you to my mother!” then, realizing it’s for naught, he kicked dirt and exploded: “Stupid dragon!”

Meanwhile Spitelout face-palmed, Stoick sighed, Hiccup shook his head disapprovingly, and Avalanche grinned widely.

“Heh. I knew all these achievements you wrote us about were way exaggerated” she snickered. Her brother’s anger immediately turned to her.

“Oh yeah? I didn’t see you riding a dragon recently, either!”

“Oh yeah? I can get myself one, don’t think I can’t!”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah!”

“Umh, Ava?” said Hiccup, daring disturb his cousins. “I really don’t think you should be getting a dragon anytime soon”

Avalanche glared at him coldly. “Why? You think a born warrior like me couldn’t handle something a walking fishbone like you did? Or a hopeless idiot like him?” she asked, pointing Snotlout. His reaction was instantaneous:

“Hey! Watch your tongue!”

“When I feel like it, you hopeless idiot!”

“Guys!” cried Hiccup. “Can’t you behave, for once?”

Both turned to him with furry. “Shut up, Hiccup!”

The chief’s son sighed. At least he got them to work together. Sort of.

“Okay, fine” he said in a tone that implied accepting defeat. “I was just going to offer you a dragon riding lesson on Toothless, but nevermind”

Avalanche’s anger vanished as she darted towards him. “Hey, wait! You’d let me fly on your Night Fury?! For real?!” she asked, bewildered. Hiccup smiled, congratulating himself on getting her attention.

“Well,” he said innocently, “if you so want to ride dragons, who better to teach you than Hiccup the Useful?” he asked in a tone heavy with fake generosity, that made Toothless roll his eyes. And seemed to have disturbed Stoick.

“Hiccup” said the chief warningly.

“Relax, Dad,” pleaded his son calmly, “I won’t be showing her any tricks. Just show her how very dangerous dragon riding can be” with that he winked at his father, hoping the message was clear enough. If Stoick wants him to carefully portion the knowledge about dragons to other tribes, he will do just that. And make dragon riding seem much harder and more dangerous than it actually is. And possibly convince Avalanche that she doesn’t yet have enough guts to enter a relationship with a dragon. Chances are slim, but it’s worth a try.

“Sounds great!” exclaimed the girl, all hyped up about the idea. “When do we start?”

Surprisingly, her brother came between her and Hiccup, glaring suspiciously at the other boy. “Whoa, not so fast! You! What do you think you’re doing?!” he demanded strictly.

Such a strong reaction confused Hiccup. “Umh… helping your sister…?”

“Exactly!” snapped Snotlout. “She’s MY sister! MY!” he growled, putting his arm around Avalanche, as if she were his prized possession. “You want one, then get yourself one!”

The girl vigorously broke away from his hold. “You’re so stupid, Snotlout” she scolded. “He can’t just ‘get’ himself a sister. He has to say a prayer to Freya”

Snotlout snorted. “A prayer to Freya? And you’re calling ME stupid?”

“Guys, please,” begged Hiccup, losing last bits of hope, “can’t you really TRY to get along for a change?”

“Oh, sure!” assured Snotlout, highly amused. “Right after Avalanche tells us where babies come from”

“Oh, I’ll tell ya, don’t think I won’t!” declared the girl, outraged. “You stupid boys shut up and pay attention!”

Hiccup was devastated. “This really isn’t…”

“SO,” started Avalanche firmly, “when a woman wants to have a baby, she says to Freya: ‘Please, let me have a baby’. Then Freya says: ‘Okay, I give you some of my super divine power. Find a man and have fun’. Then the woman goes and finds a man and kisses him very, very hard, so she could suck in a piece of his soul. The piece of man’s soul gets mixed with a piece of woman’s soul in the woman’s stomach, and nine months later a baby is born. This is how it goes”

The girl put her hands on her hips and eyed the crowd, basking in their attention. There she stood, a superior being, generously sharing her amazing knowledge with those poor, uneducated boys. That sure made her feel good about herself.

It took the men a few seconds to get out of shock. It turned out the story had been so innocent it was almost funny.

Hiccup was particularly relieved. “That’s… a nice way to put it, actually” he admitted. He had expected something way more drastic.

Spitelout chuckled. “A piece of soul, heh? Hah. If I let my guard down around Bibi, she’d suck in the whole of my soul. Or at least whole of air from my lungs” he snickered.

Hiccup rolled his eyes. “Geez, we were SO dying to know that”

“Speak for yourself!” scolded Avalanche, outraged. “I get sick hearing about this! I’m never gonna kiss a boy! It’s gross!” she shivered in disgust.

The men exchanged meaningful glances. If only she knew.

Meanwhile Snotlout grinned at his sister teasingly. “Not like any boy would like to kiss you, sissy. Not even a frog would like to kiss YOU”

“Oh yeah?!” revolted the girl. “Well you wouldn’t kiss a girl if you snuck up to her in her sleep! You know why?! Cause your breath could wake up Grimbeard the Ghastly! And kill him again!”

“Oh yeah?! Well your skin is so fat mosquitoes die from fat overloud before they reach your blood!”

“Oh yeah?! Well your nostrils are so big I could fit my fists in them!”

“Try it, bitch!”

“ARGH!!!” screamed the girl and threw herself at her brother. The two siblings fell to the ground, turning into a heap of dust, fists and bloodlust.

Hiccup watched them in disbelief. “Do ALL siblings act like this?” he asked, devastated.

“Yes” replied his father and uncle in chorus. The boy sighed. He was suddenly glad to be an only child.

“Chief! Chief Stoick!”

The sudden scream caught everybody’s attention. A plump woman with two thick braids of red hair falling to her chest was approaching in a hurry, with panic painted on her face.

“Decay?” asked Stoick, alarmed. “What happened?”

The woman stopped, resting her hands on her knees, struggling to catch her breath. Finally she spoke up, terrified: “Chief, Lady Valka left”

“What?!” cried the chief, his eyes widening in terror.

“She just did!” cried Decay fearfully. “Came out of the sauna, got dressed in a hurry, summoned her dragon and left! I couldn’t stop her! She looked so shaken! Sir, what should we do?”

Stoick stood absolutely silent and still, glaring at the servant with absent eyes, his heart pounding and mind racing. Valka left. Just like this. How absurd. How terrifying.

“Dad…?” asked Hiccup shyly. He too was worried about his mother, but even more so about his father. He wasn’t used to seeing Stoick this troubled. It made him feel very uncomfortable.

“Where” muttered the chief, “did she go?”

Decay swallowed hard. “I-I-‘m not sure. I’d say the Dragon Island. But I can be wrong”

Stoick’s fists clenched and brows drew together, his determination pushing the servant back. He was in action mode now. Cursed be whatever stands in his path.

“Decay, return to your post” he ordered firmly. “Spitelout, you keep your eye on the Bogs. Hiccup, you keep your eye on your cousins. I’m going after her. Toothless!” he rushed towards the Night Fury. His son darted to him in panic as he mounted the confused dragon.

“But Dad, I…!”

“GO!” roared Stoick, nudging Toothless’ sides harshly with his boots. The dragon whined and spread his wings, jumping into the air. And then they were gone, leaving Spitelout, Decay and the children in shock.

After a few second of awkward silence, the newly appointed acting chief pat his son and daughter on the shoulders. “Well kids, since we’re out of dragons, we might as well go find your mom”

Meanwhile Hiccup sighed, staring into the sky in hopelessness. He wondered how normal families spend their reunions.

Chapter Text

Faster. Forwards. No matter where. Just to keep moving. Just to keep getting flogged by the wind. Just to silence the storm raging inside her.

Valka hopped off Cloudjumper’s back, straight into the nothingness below them. Closed her eyes. Spread her limbs. Submitted to the force that pulled her down, to where her kind belonged. Humans were not welcome in the sky. Air above a certain height resented them. It was cold and sharp. It assaulted the skin, infiltrated the body, and set the inside organs on fire. As if seeking to challenge them: “So you think yourself equal to dragons? Let’s see how well you handle their element”.

Valka loved this. Loved verging into the dragons’ element and facing its challenges. Proving herself capable and worthy of being up there. She embraced the risk, the pain, the intensity of experience. And found solace in knowing her brothers and sisters were always there for her.

Nearing the point of reconnection, the woman pulled herself together. Cloudjumper was diving towards her, prepared for the maneuver. Valka reached for the spikes on his back. The moment she touched him he begun to shift and she pulled herself closer. She pushed her weight and found the safe footing just as he spread his wings and jerked upwards. And on and on, returning to the steady pace from before her jump.

They have done this countless times before. This and so much more. And every single time filled Valka with mad, feral satisfaction. Exploring the sky, withstanding the winds, interacting with dragons, it all made her feel so alive, so competent, so strong. The euphoria and fulfillment she derived from this lifestyle was worth all the dangers and hardships it exposed her to. There was nothing as rewarding as a dragon’s loyalty. Nothing compared to being a Dragon Lady. Humans may have been her race, but dragons were her kind.

And that was precisely the problem.

She could give up on people, but not on dragons. She said so herself. Out loud. In front of people.

Valka let out a desperate, primeval roar, dropping to her knees and letting the wind smash her against Cloudjumper’s back. The dragon turned his head, alarmed. He knew she was not feeling well, but now he was beginning to seriously worry. And all the concern he felt she sensed as it manifested itself in the torrent that flowed through his back. And somehow it made her feel even worse.

She failed as a wife. She failed as a mother. And now she was also failing as a sister.

Gods, she was despicable.

Cloudjumper slowed down and begun to gently descend. He must have concluded his human was in no condition to continue the flight and it was for the best if they took a break. Thus begun his search for a nice, cozy spot for them to rest.

Such a dear he was, that Cloudjumper. So protective of her. Like a true brother.

Not only him. Not just dragons. Stoick adored her. Hiccup genuinely liked her as a person. People on Berk were still awkward around her, but were warming up gradually.

Perhaps she wasn’t so hopeless after all. If so many individuals cared for her.

Cloudjumper landed. She wasn’t paying attention before, but a quick glance around was enough to determine the location. Dragon Island. Not that drastically far. Her first impulse had been to fly straight to the Sanctuary. Fortunately, her dragon was smarter than her.

She slid off his back and let his wise eyes scan her. She thanked him and moved closer to pat his chin. He still seemed worried, but less than a minute ago. In his expression she read encouragement. ‘I’m here for you. It’s alright. Everything will be okay’.

‘If only it were true, Cloudjumper. If only.’

Deciding she was fine enough, the dragon gathered a pile of logs and set it on fire. Valka sat by it, and her companion immediately shielded her back with his wings. With flames dancing in front of her and Cloudjumper’s life energy vibrating behind her, Valka was free to absorb the warmth and let it melt her worries. Looking at fire always helped her calm down. Regain harmony. Distance herself from her sorrows. Make peace with what happened.

Surely enough, fire worked wonders. The thoughts that disturbed her so greatly mere minutes ago have lost their destructive power. And reflecting upon the recent events became bearable.

So she had a little crisis. She engaged in a social practice the intensity of which was above her acceptable norms. A slip, but not a tragedy. Nothing she couldn’t fix. Next time she has to deal with Bog Burglars she will know what to expect.

Still, it was such a bitter pill to swallow.

She found herself in a hard situation and her first impulse was to run away. To hop on her dragon and get away from civilization. To go back to the Sanctuary. Back to the world she knew how to function in. The creatures she didn’t have to prove anything to. The home she was capable of defending.

She might have moved to Berk, but her heart had stayed at the Sanctuary.

Thinking about it made her want to cry.

She did try to fit in. She did love her husband and son. She really did want to be part of the revolution that was taking place. But, dear gods, it wasn’t easy.

A few tears escaped Valka’s eyes. And left a warm trail as they were being licked off by the surrounding warmth.

As the fire burned the woman calmed down. And looked at herself in a slightly more favorable light. So she disliked having to feel incompetent. Was it really something she should be tormenting herself with? No. Not really. Was it so wrong to find solace in doing something she knew she was good at? Probably not. Those were all natural, human reactions. Sure, she should have controlled herself better, but she was just human in the end.

A human after all.

A human who felt more at ease around dragons than around humans.

A human who agreed to rejoin her community only after said community accepted dragons.

That did not mean she put dragons above humans. What she wanted was equality. Justice. Peace. Those were good things. She had been right in wanting all that. She might not have chosen the most fortunate road, but her convictions had been right.

Valka clenched her fists, her spirit emerging from the depths of misery. She did not chose a hobby over her family. She did not abandon them out of selfishness. Stoick and Hiccup were not a burden that stood in the way of her self-fulfillment. Dragons were not toys. They were all important for her. There was place in her heart for all of them. She had a civilized side and a feral side, and neither was more important than the other. Different does not mean worse. Different is different, and that’s all there is to that.

And no bloody Bog Burglar has the right to tell her otherwise.

“Valka!”

Started out of her reverie, Valka looked up. Approaching rapidly from the direction of Berk was Stoick, worried out of him skin, on top of Toothless, who was no less nervous. Valka jumped, pushing Cloudjumper’s wings out of her way, fixing her eyes on the newcomers, who begun to descend.

“Stoick?!” she cried, bewildered. Dear gods, how could she not have considered that he’d be worried sick once he hears she left so suddenly? Idiot!

Nearing the ground, Toothless slowed down. And was thrown off course by Stoick jumping off him a good two meters above the ground. Fortunately, they both landed in soft sand. The chief hurried to his feet, fixing his widened eyes on his wife, and rushing towards her. She ran to meet him and he pulled her into a desperate embrace.

“Thank Thor, you’re alright” he panted in relief. He then loosened the grip and examined his wife from above. “Are you?” he asked, wanting to make certain.

Valka was so ashamed she could barely meet his eyes. “Stoick, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you…”

“Sh, it’s alright, love, it’s alright” he assured, giving her another hug, this time gently. She returned the affection, her arms embracing as much of him as possible. Having his powerful arms around her and even more powerful chest in front of her provided her as much comfort as being surrounded by Cloudjumper’s wings and fire. Stoick’s life force pulled the negative energy out of her, allowing her to regain inner balance. To comprehend and tame the human aspect of her nature. He, who was most entitled to hold her behavior against her, showed her the support and understanding she needed to forgive herself. In this moment, she thanked all deities she could think of for having this man in her life.

Finally, Stoick loosened his grip and considered her with a concerned expression. “Val, what happened?” he asked gently. “What upset you so much?”

Valka looked down. What was she supposed to tell him now? That some random women she just met glorified her for pissing over his very heart and she could not convince them that she actually cared for him? It sounded weak and wrong even in her thoughts, not to mention soul-shattering. Stoick should not have to listen to this.

But he was waiting for an explanation, so she had to produce one.

“I… they… I’m sorry, Stoick” she said finally, focusing on what she really wanted to express. “I couldn’t handle them. I thought I could, but… I’m sorry”

He sighed sadly at this. “I’m sorry, Val. I shouldn’t have left you alone with them”

“It’s not your fault, Stoick” she insisted. “You gave me what I asked for. I only have myself to blame”

“Don’t say that” his tone became sharper. “I’d bet my beard that you were trying to be a good hostess, and these burgling blights didn’t show you the respect you deserve. And be sure I’ll let them know this was the last time they’ve treated my wife like a fellow shipmate”

“Please don’t” she said hurriedly. “They’ve meant no harm. They just…” she hesitated, “they meant to show that they appreciate me, I guess”

Stoick raised his eyebrows. “Appreciate you? By making you fly off?”

Valka sighed to herself. Any more ridiculous excuses would be an insult to his intelligence. It was time to act her age and split it out. Thus she gathered her courage, met his eyes and spoke up.

“I… they… they praised me. For the things I loathe myself for”

This confession saddened him deeply. “Oh Val” he whispered.

“They said I was just like them” she blurted, her panic rising. “That I personify their ideas. That I abandoned you and Hiccup to pursue my own goals. And I…” gods, she was despicable. “I couldn’t convince them otherwise…. Nor myself”

Having said that, the woman looked down, vulnerable and resigned. There, she told him the truth. Stabbed him in the heart yet again. Proved to be incapable of handling the responsibilities of a chief’s wife yet again. Created some serious mess he’ll have to clean. Such a reward he would be getting for all the compassion and support he’s shown her. This was a disaster.

For a moment, Stoick didn’t say anything. He just stared at her, overcome with sadness. Finally, he took a deep breath and spoke, his tone gentle, but firm.

“You are nothing like them. Not a tiny winy bit”

She gave him a wan half-smile. Despite everything, he was still trying to make her feel better. She appreciated the effort, of course, but they both knew nice words couldn’t bend reality. A ripped shirt could be fixed, but the stitching would remain. And somebody would always spot it.

“Am I really?” she asked in a tone of somebody who’s just been condemned.

Stoick put his hands on her shoulders and faced her with his most serious expression.

“Tell me: if Cloudjumper hadn’t taken you that night, would you have left on your own?”

The question caught her off guard. “…no” she uttered.

“Would you have left me and Hiccup just like this?” Stoick asked on, determined.

“No, of course not!” she revolted.

The look of determination in his eyes intensified. “If you knew there was a way to change Berk, to change me, if you thought you could do that, would you have tried?”

There was a challenge to his expression, a look of no mercy, a stare meant to expose all of her insecurities and release all of her demons. He was exerting as much pressure as only a man of his stature and rank could, which could only be endured by one as strong as himself. She sensed an ignition inside her soul, a fire burning all hesitation to ashes, filling her with faith that couldn’t be extinguished. And she met his eyes without a hint of fear, without a shadow of doubt.

“Yes” she nodded, her tone definite and conviction solid as steel. “I would have tried”

“Then remember this” he demanded with the tone of a battle commander. “Remember the confidence with which you said these words. Grab it and never let go. Let it become your armor and protect you from idiots like Bloodybee. Their words, and even their thoughts, mean nothing. They are way too limited to comprehend how amazing you are” at this point, he allowed himself a smile. “Unlike me” he added, proud of both himself and his wife.

Valka couldn’t help but smirk in response. “I think I’ll believe you, Stoick the Vast. If I truly were despicable, I don’t think I could have won over somebody as noble as yourself” she remarked, reaching out to caress his face. A man who pushed her away from darkness with one well-aimed kick in the butt deserved all recognition he could get.

Judging by his expression, this was definitely the attitude he liked to see. “Nothing is sweeter than praise from your lips” he said, pleased. “Except maybe one thing”

She smiled, understanding very well what he meant. She melted into his arms as he kissed her. Seeing this, Toothless trotted to Cloudjumper and opened his jaws widely, dizzy with anticipation. The bigger dragon rolled his eyes.

Meanwhile Valka looked up at her husband. “So… I guess we have to go home now?”

“I guess so” he replied carelessly. He didn’t really feel like going home just yet, and neither did she. But then, would it be alright to stay away for so long when Berk needed them?

As Valka considered this, she concluded the village should be fine for an hour or two more. Even the chief has tot think of himself from time to time.

Suddenly, an idea occurred to her. “Would it be very inappropriate if we stayed here for lunch?”

Stoick seemed intrigued. “I wouldn’t say so” he decided. “Provided there was a lunch to have”

“There will be in about two minutes” assured Valka, suddenly energetic. Wasting no time, she hopped over to her dragon companion. “Cloudjumper, would you be a dear and help us? We need two fish. Just don’t swallow them, okay?”

The dragon let out a growl of understanding and flew in the direction of the sea. As he circled the surface of the water, scanning it for prey, Valka retrieved two sticks from the sand – probably remainings of the Viking spears. No sooner had she returned to Stoick with these accessories as Cloudjumper landed next to them with two fish dangling from his muzzle. Valka thanked him, pat him on the chin, and threaded the prey on the spears. Two haddocks for two Haddocks. How very fitting indeed.

“Now let me show you a trick I’ve come up with” she told her husband and turned back to her dragon companion, aiming the fish towards him. The Stormcutter lowered his head and opened his jaws, forming a semi-circle with his tongue. As Valka placed the fish inside his jaws, he reduced the opening. A bright fire emerged from between his teeth, licking the surface of the fish.

“Oh” said Stoick. “Impressive”

Just like Valka predicted, their lunch was cooked in no time. “There” she announced, admiring the beautifully roasted, deliciously smelling fish. “Fish a la dragon fire”

Stoick chuckled. “It sure smells good” he said, taking off his cape. He spread it on the ground and invited his wife to sit. She, in turn, handed him one of the fish. They both sat down and bit into their meal.

“It’s good” remarked Stoick, sincerely bewildered. “It’s actually good”

Valka chuckled. “I guess even I can make something so simple. With a little help from my friends” she looked at Cloudjumper, who poured at the praise. And scoffed at Toothless, who once again approached him with open jaws.

Valka smiled at this. She stood up and approached the two dragons, sliding the half-eaten fish of her stick. “Here, Toothless. You’ve earned it”

The Night Fury was beside himself with joy. He swallowed the treat and licked his muzzle, giving Valka a smile of gratitude.

Following his wife’s example, Stoick approached Cloudjumper. “Thank you. For everything” he said, offering the Stormcutter half of his fish. Visibly flattered, the dragon picked it up gently and ate. It felt good, knowing he was appreciated.

With everybody fed and happy, Stoick put his arm around Valka and they looked at each other with affection. For once, everything was perfect.

(…)

Unfortunately, they had to go home eventually. Their dragons were easily visible (being the only individuals in their respective species), so at least no special announcement had to be made – everybody knew the chief and his wife were back. Still, the couple had to calm down their very worried son and seek out Spitelout, whom Stoick had left in charge of everything. They didn’t have to look very hard – the chief’s step-brother made quite a show, battling Bloodybee on top of his house, with a crowd of Hairy Hooligans and Bog Burglars cheering loudly. The Bog Captain had a long spike attached to her prosthetic and wielded a curved sword in her good hand, while the Berkian warrior fought with a one-sided ax and a shield.

Oh well. At least he kept the Bog Burglars occupied.

Not even a minute passed before the opponents backed away from each other, hid their respective weapons, and congratulated each other on the fine fight. They then slid down from the roof in the accompaniment of cheers and clapping.

Bloodybee immediately headed towards the chiefing couple, smiling at Valka. “SO, how was your little tryst?” she asked mischievously.

Valka blinked in astonishment. “Umh, what?” she had expected questions regarding her sudden departure, but this totally caught her off guard.

The Bog Burglar smirked, looking smug as ever. “Oh, don’t pretend to be so innocent, sister. A woman goes missing for no reason, a man storms off to look for her, they return the very same day, completely unharmed. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you guys wanted some time alone” she eyed the two spouses with shameless satisfaction, as if they attempted to fool her and she saw right through it. “And I can’t blame you” she added, suddenly generous. “One can only handle as much responsibilities and stuff without taking a porking break. I speak from experience” she chuckled.

Valka and Stoick exchanged confused glances. Did she really think that they… that THIS was the reason they left? And actually expressed this very opinion in public? Worse, everybody around seemed intrigued by her theory. All the Bog Burglars were smirking and all the Hairy Hooligans staring in disbelief.

Gods, have mercy.

“Umh.. right… I guess” uttered Valka, unable to come up with a better reply. Something was telling her that there was no point in trying to prove the Bog Captain wrong. Besides, it might have been better for the other woman to believe in her own theory than the truth. Stoick didn’t really care for what Bog Burglars thought about him, and their own tribe would not dare press the matter. The rumor would die a natural death and their embarrassment along with it. Hopefully.

Bloodybee gave her a reassuring smile. “There. No hard feelings. See you at the Mead Hall tonight. I bet you’ll have some stories to tell”

It might have ended there – with everybody going their respective ways and erasing the event from their memories. But, all of a sudden, Valka had a sprout of inspiration.

“Bloodybee”

The moment she called the other woman’s name, she felt her husband freeze in shock. Understandably, as the initiative surprised even her. But seeing she had the Bog Burglar’s attention, she spoke on.

“What you said about your prosthetic… I don’t completely agree. For me it’s more like the hair”

It was Bloodybee’s turn to be surprised. “The hair?”

“Yes” nodded Valka. “Hair is not really a body part. I could cut it off and it wouldn’t hurt” she said, indicating her long braids. “It requires a lot of care and attention. In fact, it can be very inconvenient at times” she paused for a moment, letting the message sink in. “Still, I wouldn’t cut it off just like this. Strange as it sounds, it makes me feel better about myself. Call it vanity, maybe even stupidity, but I like this particular part of me. Living without probably would be easier, but not as satisfactory. And nobody could ever convince me otherwise”

She finished the speech with a light smile, and a surprising lightness on her heart. It didn’t matter that most of the people around her had no idea what she was talking about. It didn’t matter if anybody questioned her sanity because of it. She articulated her true feelings, exactly the way she had meant to. And she wasn’t going to hide the satisfaction she derived form the experience.

For a moment she wasn’t sure if her intended recipient would understand. Yet, Blodybee seemed intrigued by the concept. Better yet, pleasantly surprised. And then, as a genuine smile brightened her face, it was clear that she was also impressed.

“You know what?” she said casually. “I like your reasoning better than mine”

This response surprised Valka. And made her ridiculously happy. “Really?”

“Yeah” nodded the Bog Burglar. “A prosthetic won’t come back to me if I take it off. But hair?” ran her good hand through her hair. “Hair just keep growing. All over my body” she chuckled, indicating all of herself. “We’ll never be completely free of hair. And I wouldn’t like it any other way” she concluded, smiling warmly.

Valka nodded, returning the smile. “I’m glad to hear that”

Bloodybee gave her a salute, winking, and turned around to go her own way. This time, they parted on good terms.

It didn’t concern them a slightest bit that their men – and most of the crowd for that matter – regarded them with utmost confusion.

“What was that?” Stoick asked his wife.

“Nothing really” she replied lightly. “Just women talk”

He sighed, deciding not to press the issue. Perhaps it was for the best if he didn’t know everything. If Valka managed to find common tongue with somebody, he should be happy for her. Even more so that she apparently managed to knock that blasted Bloodybee down a peg or two.

Thus, content with themselves and the world around them, the spouses left the gathering.

Chapter Text

Fire was burning bright in the Mead Hall tonight. Tables were arranged. Mugs and plates laid out. Barrels of mead stored by the wall. Boar roasting. Goulash cooking. Ornamental shields shining brightly. Musicians warming up. Everything infiltrated by excitement in anticipation of the upcoming feast.

There was only one formality left to be taken care of.

Stoick the Vast sat with his arms crossed, eying the barrel being placed on the table in front of him. Hairy Hooligans and Bog Burglars held their breath as the container was opened. Out of it sprung a stream of deep red liquid, like blood from a violently cut artery. And likely no less valuable.

Wine was a luxury good in the Viking world. Vikings commonly drunk water and milk, knew how to make beer and mead, but cultivating wine grapes in their climate was a out of question. The drink had to be imported from southern lands.

Hairy Hooligans did not typically venture far beyond the Archipelago – since they have always had their hands full fighting dragons and searching for the Nest. Items from far away were delivered to them by traders in exchange for local wares – wool, lumber, weapons, tapestries, and other craftworks, also dragon teeth jewelry (particularly valuable).

Bog Burglars, on the other hand, spent most of their time sailing. They always knew what could be obtained where. And filled the Viking market with goods of extraordinary value.

Captain Bloodybee personally handed the Hooligan chief a cup full of wine. Stoick eyed the liquid carefully, shifting the container slightly. He breathed in the aroma of the drink. And took a sip. He did not swallow immediately, taking the time to savor the experience, letting the elixir leave its mark of his tongue. When all of it has made its slow descent down the chief’s throat, the man eyed the cup again, letting out a hump of satisfaction. He then turned to the people standing directly behind him. The group consisted of Spitelout, Gobber, Valka and Hiccup.

It was the boy he summoned.

Hiccup was visibly startled. Yet, he approached his father. Stoick handed him the cup with the words “Taste it, son”. The boy took it, albeit reluctantly. Following his father’s example, he took a good look at the drink from a couple angles, sniffed it, and took a sip. Judging from his expression, the experience wasn’t unpleasant, but left him quite confused.

Valka figured this must have been her son’s first taste of wine ever. Or maybe he was offered a cup before, but ended up embarrassing himself somehow. If, by any chance, he spat it out in front of people, they probably still teased him about it from time to time.

Meanwhile Stoick smiled at his offspring. “Well? What do you say?”

Hiccup hesitated. “It’s… rich” he said finally.

The comment won the approval of Bloodybee. “Isn’t it just?” she asked, swelling with pride. “Southern Sun liquidized! The taste stays in your throat even a minute after you swallow it! This is the quality I could bet my good hand on!” she exclaimed, patting the barrel with said hand.

A sudden motion next to Hiccup caught his attention. Gothi the elder was tugging on his tunic, and looking at him expectantly.

“Oh. Yes, of course” the boy handed the woman the cup. She eyed it carefully, sniffed, and took a sip. After a moment of contemplation, she gestured for her assistant. A little girl – her great-granddaughter – approached, and placed a sandbox in front of her. Gothi then transferred her judgment onto the sand with her stick. The little girl watched, and smiled as the message was written down.

“She wants a barrel all to herself!” exclaimed the little girl. Gothi smiled in approval and pat her great-granddaughter’s head.

“Of course, elder, of course” assured Stoick. He then addressed Hiccup again. “Well, son? How much do we charge them?”

Hiccup considered the matter carefully. They were asked to accommodate a crew of 25 for a total of 9 days, provide them with hot meals and sauna. Not to mention a perfect opportunity to acquire knowledge on dragon training.

“One barrel for every member of the crew” suggested Hiccup finally.

Stoick nodded in approval and turned to Bloodybee. “You’ve heard him: that’s 25 barrels altogether” he announced.

The woman chuckled. “Silly boys. You think I let myself get scrod that easily?” she challenged them, hands on hips. “It takes three months of sailing just to find a vineyard this good. 15 barrels is most you’ll get”

Tension levels rose as Stoick’s eyebrows lowered. “You’re the one who’s trying to screw everybody, Bloodybee. A blind man would have noticed these barrels are smaller than Standard Viking Beverage Barrels”

The Bog Captain shrug her shoulders, smiling innocently. “True, the barrels are smaller, but the beverage is richer. If standard beverage is like standard blood, then this here wine is like the blood flowing in my children’s veins. Finest of the finest, unbeatable, top sort. And not a drop of water mixed into it. One good warrior is worth more than a handful of mediocre warriors, wouldn’t you agree, chief?” she asked with mock sweetness.

Stoick hmh-ed, narrowing his eyes and folding his arms. When he next looked up at his opponent, he appeared less tense. It was with a sigh that he returned to negotiations. “I insist by 25 barrels, Bloodybee. However,” he added quickly, “I will have three of them offered to everyone – your and mine people likewise – at today’s feast. Another six at Snoggletog feast. And one will be given to your son Snotlout. Are these terms acceptable to you?”

The woman hmh-ed. She appeared to be thinking heavily, weighing the pros and cons, but the mischievous smile she sported mere seconds later destroyed the impression. She has already made her decision. It was just that she enjoyed the drama.

“Fine, Stoick. We have a deal”

Rather than shake her hand, the chief folded his arms and cleared his throat.

Bloodybee sighed with a weak smile. “Right. Bare-hand shake. I always forget that” she

She loosened the straps of the leather glove that held the base with male coupling, to which she attached her prosthetics (currently empty). Underneath was a protective sleeve made of linen, which she pulled off. Interestingly, she didn’t toss either of the elements onto the table, but kept them both in a firm grip of her good hand. She must have felt vulnerable without them. As she offered her crippled, bare hand to Stoick, she did not tremble, nor hesitate, but her expression was that of peaceful politeness, as opposed to the shameless bravado she typically exhibited.

Valka was surprised – as she didn’t spot any sign of self-consciousness in Bloodybee’s behavior before. She concluded the Captain doesn’t mind interacting with other women without protection, but men were a different story. Especially ones she didn’t get along with, like Stoick. Who just so happened to have quite a firm grip.

“Now”, said Stoick, shaking Bloodybee’s hand, “we have a deal”

The two tribes rejoiced. Formality was done with!

“Alright, girls, you know the drill!” Bloodybee exclaimed joyfully, hurriedly putting her sleeve and glove back on. “Bring one barrel to the elder’s hut, one to Spitelout’s house, and 22 up here. Avalanche,” she turned to her daughter, “you show them how to reach your father’s basement”

“Aye aye, Captain!” the girl saluted her mother and dashed after the grown crewmates.

“You go with them, Snotlout” Spitelout told his son. “You need to guard your property”

“Sure dad!” said the boy eagerly. He headed for the exit, but stopped momentarily to address a peer of his. “You’ve heard it, Astrid? I’ve got a barrel of wine all to myself! See you in my basement if you ever want to try it!” he winked at the girl and bolted to catch up with his sister.

Astrid rolled her eyes – much to the delight of Hiccup.

Gothi’s great-granddaughter also exited the Mead Hall in hurry, which meant she was ordered to take care of the delivery on the elder’s behalf. As for Gothi herself, she stayed where she stood, contemplating the wine cup with undeniable pleasure.

Meanwhile Spitelout slapped Bloodybee on the shoulder “Alright, woman!” he exclaimed jovially. “Now that the business’s done with, we’re going to dance!”

The woman’s eyes lit up and her bravado returned with full force. “Get me a bowl of goulash and I might consider it” she grinned.

“And what makes you think I won’t spit into it?” Spitelout grinned back.

Bloodybee waved her hand. “Sweet scoundrel, with the amount of body liquids we already exchanged, one spit more won’t make a difference” she chuckled.

Excitement flourished on the man’s face. “You know what? This wine of yours will be perfect with our roasted boars” he grinned, leaning towards her, practically devouring her with his eyes. Her gaze was no less intense as she grabbed his arm.

“Then go and get it, my mighty hunter” she ordered through a devious smile.

“Rawr!” he chomped at the air in front of her face and backed off to retrieve the food. She meanwhile returned to the table where the wine barrel stood, grabbed two mugs from a collection somebody had since delivered, and joined the line of Vikings waiting for their chance to access the luxury drink.

Meanwhile Hiccup stared at her with jaws wide open. His brain shut down due to mature content overload.

He felt a tug at his tunic. Gothi was offering him the cup of wine she had claimed earlier. The boy took it and emptied in one go. The elder smiled reassuringly and pet his back. He was so innocent it was adorable.

Meanwhile Stoick had filled two new cups and handed one to his wife. Following his example, Valka examined the liquid visually, olfactory, and gustatory. And was overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience.

“It’s really good” she said, looking at the liquid in acknowledgement. Who’d have thought people were capable of making something this delicious? This could very well be the drink they served in Valhalla.

“Isn’t it?” laughed Stoick. Judging by his merry tone and wide smile, he wholeheartedly agreed with him wife.

Gobber, who was also sampling the drink, had an expression of utmost relief and bliss. “Odin’s beard, this stuff is good!” he said dreamily. In the next moment he was marching briskly towards the music corner, sprouting positive energy. “Alright, people!” he called jovially. “Let’s get this party started! You, Rusty!” he hopped towards the secondary laeknir and urged him towards the band. “You sing that slow number, will you, boy!?”

“Yes, of course” muttered the young man, letting himself be pushed forwards. It didn’t seem like he had any choice.

“Oh!” Stoick’s eyes lit up as he turned to his wife. “Are you free for this dance, fair maiden?” he asked with a dashing smile.

Valka couldn’t help but smile widely. “But of course, oh noble warrior” she replied, flattered. This was turning out to be a very pleasant party.

Stoick took both their cups and handed them to Hiccup. “You keep an eye on these, son” he ordered and immediately turned his attention back to Valka. She took the arm he offered her and they entered the dance floor.

Viking music was usually loud and lively – just like the Vikings themselves. The dances were meant to make blood flow faster and chase the coldness away. The number requested by Gobber was supposed to be a slow one, so the dance floor was taken over by couples. With the corner of her eye Valka noticed Bloodybee and Spitelout joining in, and smiled to herself. Then the band started to play and all her attention fell on the man before her. He was regarding her with so much love and awe that she couldn’t help blushing. And thank every deity she could think of for such a wonderful husband.

She found herself being lead into a gentle motion. In a blink of an eye the dance floor transformed into a sea and the couples into boats, rocked by the delicate waves of music and a young man’s voice.

And what a voice he had.

I see you sail away again
Never looking back
Just like the day you left my life
Not knowing that it broke my heart

The melancholic melody penetrated Valka’s heart, touching her deeper than she thought it could. Rusty was a good singer, capable of pulling high tones – but it was the lyrics that really captivated her.

I toss and turn and cry for you
And hate myself for doing so
I should have stopped you when I could
Instead I stared and watched you go

Valka’s heart pounded. Anxiety begun to brew at the bottom of her stomach. Suddenly she remembered dangling in the air. Fire consuming her house. Stoick desperately crying her name, holding their whimpering son…

The next verse continued in the sorrowful tone, full of genuine resignation and regret.

Would that have made you change your mind
If you had known how much I cared
If you had known there was someone
Who loved you just the way you were

Tears were forming in Valka’s eyes as she pressed her face into Stoick’s beard. He loved her, has loved her all along, just the way she were. And she still left him.

The part that came next was slightly livelier, like a firefly suddenly emerging from the depths of the night.

I guess I’ll never know for sure
No use in wondering what went wrong
I’ll hold on to your principles
So loving you would make me strong

The storm raising within Valka came to a halt. Clouds begun to drift away, letting in the sun. The light was frail, but it was stubborn. And continued to glow as the song went on.

You worked so hard your whole life long
You wasted no time whimpering
And through fate dealt you many blows
You took them all with dignity

She could feel Stoick leaning in, his lips brushing her earlobe as he whispered the next verse.

You are the star that’s guiding me
The fire you lit still keeps me warm
Though we may never meet again
It’s loving you that makes me strong

A pleasant warmth spread all over her body, melting the tension and brushing sorrows aside. Her husband’s voice was like an answer to a prayer, his whole form a shield that protected her from all harm. She rubbed her cheek against his, getting lost in a sense of profound peace. Tears escaped her eyes yet again, but those were born of relief.

The rest of the dance was a pleasant cruise.

(…)

A couple songs later the party was in full swing. Pairs and small groups danced all over the place, laughing and singing. Others sat back to catch their breath and socialize. Vikings of both tribes feasted on roasted boar and venison goulash, exchanging jokes and gossip. In this happy atmosphere, Stoick and his family sat down for a meal. Right now they were just one of many groups in the spacious hall, which was heartening, especially for Valka. She found comfort in the intimate atmosphere they managed to create in the middle of this commotion. Fortunately, the Mead Hall was designed to hold the whole tribe. Even with such a large number of people, the place didn’t feel crowded.

When the chief and his wife decided to take a break from dancing, they located the table where their son and his mentor sat over half-empty bowls and mugs. They joined in with trays of their own. Much to their approval, not a drop seemed to be missing from the cups they had entrusted to Hiccup a while ago.

Stoick immediately smirked at the lad. “Good job, son. Not a drop is missing”

Hiccup did not appear particularly happy. “I’m having mead” he explained. “Wine really isn’t my kind of thing” in his thoughts, he added: Even more so that it brings to my mind the picture of Bloodybee and Spitelout exchanging body fluids.

Gobber seemed to find it amusing. “Oy, too intense for yer delicate throat?” he teased. “Don’t worry, you’ll love it when you’re older”

“Sure” replied Hiccup dryly. He then switched his attention to his parents. “You guys enjoying yourselves?” he asked, hoping to get the conversation onto some safer grounds.

Stoick was delighted to answer. “Sure. We’re having the time of our lives” he announced, beaming with happiness, pride and love for the world. Especially the woman by his side, whom he regarded with affection. He really did look like the happiest man alive.

“We are indeed” confirmed Valka, her opinion sincere. She had completely forgotten what a festive atmosphere this community was capable of producing. And tonight was particularly empowering. “And that first song was simply beautiful” she remarked, remembering the catharsis that piece had given her.

The remark pleased Stoick. “I knew you’d like it” he said with a hint of pride. “I always think of you when Rusty sings it”

That bit of information intrigued Valka. “So the song is his?” she asked.

“Aye. There was a woman he loved, apparently, but it didn’t work out. Writing it down helped him cope with the grief” the chief swallowed another mouthful and smiled. “I’m just glad Decay convinced him to sing in public. We never would have heard it otherwise”

“I see” Valka nodded. She now understood why the laeknir sung with so much passion. Those lyrics were his actual love story. An unfulfilled love story.

She gazed at the table occupied by Gothi and her closest kin. Rusty was scratching the back of his neck, smiling sheepishly at two young Bog Burglars who appeared to be hitting on him. The elder seemed amused, the primary laeknir annoyed, and the two youngest children confused. Not even a minute later the Bog Burglars backed off, laughing benevolently. As soon as they were gone, Rusty sat down, breathing a sigh of relief. The primary laeknir pat his back.

Valka felt a wave of compassion for the young man. Rusty was in mid twenties. True to his name, he had bright red hair, about an inch long and rather messy, and a matching beard. He sported some fine muscles, but his figure was noticeably slimmer than that typical of Hairy Hooligan men. He likely used to be skinny as a teenager, and worked hard to build himself up. Despite his rank he was very modest and kind, sometimes coming off as awkward. He reminded Valka of her own son to a degree. Only that he lacked Hiccup’s dry sense of humor and overconfidence.

It might have been the similarity, or plain empathy that made Valka turn to Stoick with the following question. “That woman, do you know who she was?”

Stoick shook his head. “No idea. Rusty never told anybody. Not even Decay” he remarked before taking another mouthful of venison goulash.

Decay was Rusty’s older sister, and they were appeared to be very close. The young man was often seen playing with his nephew and niece, and Decay dotted on him. Her husband even said that Rusty was to them like a brother and son combined.

Valka took another sip of wine. It really did underline the taste of venison goulash she was eating. She then eyed the liquid, shifting her cup gently. As if the motion could inspire her somehow.

“I see you sail away again… that seems like a clue” she concluded finally. After all, women don’t typically just sail away.

“We’ve had a few departures in the last couple of years” said Stoick. “The woman might have joined the Bog Burglars. Or married into another Tribe”

“I think” Gobber suddenly cut in, “she might still be living on Berk. She might even be a close friend of Rusty’s. The part about sailing away is to deceive us” he declared, shaking his mug for emphasis.

Valka turned to the blacksmith, her curiosity perked. “You think so?”

“Aye” nodded Gobber. “She’s lost to him in that she’s happily married to somebody else. That’s why he won’t tell anybody who she is. If people knew, her reputation would die a gruesome death. That would be the end to both her and Rusty. So he puts on a brave face and lies, to protect the both of them” the blacksmith took a sip from his mug and melted into nostalgia. “Ah, to love somebody you could never be with. I know how it feels” he sighed dreamily.

Valka smiled kindly. “You’re such a romantic, Gobber”

“You have no idea” he chuckled.

The blissful atmosphere was disturbed by a smack to Valka’s back. Delivered – unsurprisingly – by Bloodybee. A very delighted and cocky Bloodybee.

“Valka! Enjoying yourself?” the captain laughed, putting her arm around her victim. “Cause I could use some more entertainment! Come,” she pulled at the other woman’s arm, “tell us all about your life with the dragons!”

The suggestion was immediately applauded by the surrounding Vikings. Excitement spread like fire, and so did Valka’s anxiety.

Stoick’s reaction was instant. “Hold it!” he demanded, jumping to his feet. “Who gave you the right to boss my wife around?”

To his credit, Bloodybee let go of Valka’s shoulder and took a step back. Yet, her insolence did not weaken a bit.

“Oh, but I’m merely making a request” she said sweetly. “On behalf of all of us, I believe”

Most of the Hall reacted in applause. Comments like “Yeah!” and “Story time!” could be heard.

Valka swallowed hard. She was outnumbered.

Stoick’s reassuring grip was firm on her shoulder, and his face determined. “You don’t have to do this” he told her.

She didn’t, of course. She could very well tell the intent and expectant crowd they would not be getting a story out of her. Only she doubted they’d let her off the hook just like this.

It wasn’t that she was uncomfortable with speaking in public. She’s given enough dragon-related lessons and lectures to get over the fear. The problem was, this particular public was not interested in studying. What they sought was entertainment. They wanted her to brag about her heroic deeds, like a proper Viking should. Preferably displaying an ego the size of a Bewilderbeast. By all gods, she was not going to do that.

“Me!” Snotlout exclaimed, appearing by his mother’s side. “Mom, I’m gonna tell you a story! You’re gonna love it!”

For once, Valka was glad the bulky boy was such an attention seeker. Bloodybee, however, had a different opinion.

“Oh, how cute“ she chuckled, petting her son on the helmet. “My little piglet thinks he’s a battle-ready boar. Sorry, son, but tonight’s not your night” she added in a patronizing tone. “Who’d want to listen to a boy, even as fine as yourself, when there’s a real hero sitting among us?”

That comment was backed up by a loud wave of approving shouts. “Yeah!”, “Well said!”,

While Snotlout glared daggers at his mother’s crewmates, Valka wondered whether to laugh or cry. She was not a hero. She was anything but a hero. If it wasn’t for her stubborn son she wouldn’t even be here.

If it wasn’t for one boy’s blind faith, she wouldn’t even be here.

Not quite knowing what she was doing, the woman drew herself up and walked to the centre of the room. She could literally feel her husband’s worried gaze drill a hole in back, his concerns more intense than the excitement of Bog Burglars. The dragon lady took a firm stand, and a moment to contemplate the sea of faces that followed her. Acknowledging that she had everybody’s attention, she spoke.

“What you want to hear” she begun carefully, “is a story of a hero. A hero who ended the 300-year-long war between Vikings and dragons” she glanced around the room. Everybody was listening attentively. “But I am not the hero”

The public’s faces dropped in confusion. “I really am not” continued Valka confidently. “My story is one of a an ordinary woman, whose only merit was seeing dragons as something more than vicious beasts. And even that did not help my tribe a tiniest bit. I have always believed there had to be an alternative to mindless killing, but I could never offer actual ideas. I have pleaded to stop the fighting, to find another answer, but what good has my talking ever done? Absolutely nothing” she waved her head, taking a quick glance around. The audience was increasingly confused, but that didn’t bother her a tiniest bit.

“As of today” she continued, “I am, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable dragon expert in existence. However, it has never been my intention to become one. In all honesty, I became what I am today, because I had no choice. I was scooped from the ground and taken away. Thrown right in the middle of a foreign world, inhabited by creatures I knew next to nothing about. It was a sink or swim situation. If I were to survive, I had to adapt. Cloudjumper, quite literally, took me under his wing. Saw in me something that was worth his time and effort. It was him who trained me, not the other way around. He allowed me to become a part of his world, to get to know dragons like no human had ever before. Alas, if I were left to my own devices, all this knowledge would have died with me”

The dragon lady sent a look towards her family. They looked worried. She gave them a reassuring smile and went on.

“The story you really want to hear begun not that long ago. And it had nothing to do with me. The hero you really want to hear of found himself in a situation similar to mine, yet very different at the same time. Our hero had wanted to kill dragons. Had, in fact, trapped a dragon. Had him at his mercy. Any other Viking would have happily killed the beast and kept the corpse as a trophy. But not our hero. The moment he looked into that dragon’s eyes, he knew he could never do what he had been raised to do. He looked at that dragon and he saw a soul. A soul that reflected his own”

The Hall was steaming with anticipation. Valka had them all at the edges of their seats. And enjoyed the feeling of absolute power.

“Our hero chose to set the dragon free. Chose to put his own life on the line rather than take the dragon’s. The story might have ended there, but the hero chose to seek out the dragon, again exposing himself to danger for the sake of acquiring knowledge. He had this one dragon to study and observe, and no guarantee the benefits would be worth the risk, and he still did it. And arrived at some very solid conclusions, showing that his mind was as brilliant as his heart was strong. But his most notable trait was the blind faith in his own people. I can tell you, without a doubt: had it not been for this exceptional young man, this war would have lasted until we all wiped each other out”

That being said, Valka walked over to where her family sat, smiling gently. She gestured for her son to stand up. He stared at her is surprise, completely at loss. Then, hesitantly, he got up and approached her, not once breaking the eye contact. Valka put her arm around his shoulder and addressed the crowd.

“I give you the true hero of this story. Hiccup the Useful” to Hiccup, she said: “I am proud to have you as my son”

His mouth dropped open a little. Then a lot, shifting into a shy grin and then a wide smile. The, as tears of joy begun to form in his eyes, he threw his arms around her and held on tightly. She embraced him back and the crowd “awwwed”.

Hiccup giggled through tears, happy beyond reason. And grateful that his mother thought of him in her moment of glory. No one had ever spoken of him the way she did. And when he looked into her eyes, he saw that she had meant it. She thought him a hero. And it meant the world to him.

It didn’t matter if everybody else laughed or ridiculed him. He already had all the recognition he needed.

After they broke their embrace, Valka regarded him with genuine pride. This was the right man for the job. Of that, she was sure.

“This story is yours to tell” she said gently. She then gave her son a final pat on the shoulder and backed off. Her part was finished. All that was left to do was to sit back and relax.

When she returned to her seat, Stoick neared himself to her. “I still think you’re awesome” he said, visibly proud of how well she handled the situation.

“Of course I am” she chuckled. “I churned out an heir unlike any other”

Stoick smiled in approval. “Aye. You so did”

Chapter Text

Facing the crowd gathered in the Mead Hal tonight, Hiccup felt prouder than ever. He was no stranger to being in the center of attention, but never before has said attention been this positive. All the eyes were on him. Eyes belonging to robust, daring Vikings, who clearly considered him more interesting than their food and drinks. Not because he had made a mess of things, but because he had a brilliant story to tell. He was surrounded by people who genuinely wanted to listen to him. Who believed in him. It was the most empowering feeling in the world.

Hiccup smiled to himself, absorbing the atmosphere like a flower does sunlight. The times of being shoved out of the way like a rotten cabbage were over. He was no longer the kid who made his marks in the wrong places. Tonight, he was the hero.

He took a deep breath and started to narrate. “It all started one night, by all means as normal as any other…”

“Until dragons attacked!” exclaimed Snotlout, emerging besides the thinner boy.

“Hey!” protested Hiccup. But Snotlout was too excited to pay him any heed.

“Dragons snatching sheep from the ground!” he exclaimed, gesticulating widely. “People throwing themselves at them with whatever weapons they can find! Everybody maneuvering between flames! And then there’s Hiccup, running for his life, with a Monstrous Nightmare right behind him! Hey, Hookfang!” the boy called to his dragon, “Come, chase Hiccup!”

Hookfang, meanwhile, lay by one of the side fireplaces, sipping yak milk from the barrel in front of him. He did not seem bothered by two children who pet his muzzle, nor to have heard his rider.

“Hookfang!” called Snotlout angrily. That, finally, got the dragon’s attention. He roared and hurried towards his rider, reaching him with one powerful jump, raising the excitement of the audience.

“As I was saying, the Monstrous Nightmare was about to swallow Hiccup” continued Snotlout, gesturing for his dragon to charge at the thinner boy. Hookfang neared his head to the Hooligan heir, sniffing curiously. “But then,” continued Snotlout, “the chief entered the scene!” he yelled, smacking Hookfang from the side. The Monstrous Nightmare growled in disapproval, the audience gasped, and Snotlout demonstrated further punches, attacking the air in front of his dragon and narrating vigorously. “Stoick was unstoppable, beating the life out of the beast with his bare hands! From left, and right, and right in the trap! And wham! The dragon was out of fire in split seconds! And then,” Snotlout’s eyes gleamed as he took a dramatic pause, “Then, the chief whipped some sparks off his shoulder, eyed the mess that surrounded him, and found Hiccup. And Hiccup looked at him, with those big eyes, and this stupid face,” Snotlout bent his knees, slouched and looked up with as much guilt as he could faker, “and said: but I hit a Night Fyoolly”

The last sentence came in fake childish voice and earned quite a laughter from the crowd.

Hiccup sighed heavily and pat his cousin on the shoulder. “Thank you, Snotlout, for this lovely introduction” he said sarcastically.

“You’re welcome” grinned the bigger boy.

Hiccup probably should be angry, but concluded it really wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t about to let such a minor disturbance spoil the night for him.

“Now,” said the Hooligan heir firmly in the direction of the audience, reestablishing his position as the hero of the story, “as Snotlout said, I did hit a Night Fury. Of course, nobody believed me, so I had to go and retrieve it myself. This was when I first saw Toothless” he gestured the Night Fury. “Tied up in the bola I shot”

Toothless fell to the ground, drawing his wings close and assuming a hopeless pose. His rider smiled weakly.

“That moment… I was proud” he admitted reluctantly. “I thought I have finally proved myself. That I was a Viking, and not… well, a hiccup. Who’d want to be a hiccup if you can be a Viking?”

The boy smiled sheepishly, but that smile faded quickly. Telling jokes seemed so painfully inappropriate in this situation. Hiccup took a deep breath and approached Toothless, continuing the tale.

“All I had to do was to cut the heart out and bring it to my father. But then I looked at him… and I couldn’t”

He had made this confession to his mother before, and he did feel uncomfortable speaking these words. This time was no less difficult. Still, the boy was determined to get his message across. To open the eyes of all these Vikings to the truth he had experienced first-hand. They may not understand him, but at least they’ll remember.

“There was something in his eyes that just touched me to the core” the boy spoke on. “I was scared. But so was he. He and I… we were so much alike. I realized, if I kill him, I will never forgive myself. So I set him free”

Toothless jumped to his paws, shook himself, and jumped aside. Hiccup continued the tale.

“I gathered myself from the ground and headed for home, accepting that I would never be like all the other Vikings. I would forget all about dragons and focus on my training in the smithy, where I didn’t have to kill anything. But then my father says: ‘Son, you get your wish. Dragon training. You start in the morning’. And I am like: Oh, just great”

(…)

The rest of the story was narrated without major disturbances. Hiccup spoke of his observations, of the mutual curiosity between himself and Toothless, of constructing the saddle and helping the dragon fly again. Toothless posed eagerly, helping him reconstruct their adventures. Other Berkian teens – mostly Snotlout – offered their comments every now and then. There were funny moments, scary moments, and everybody was captivated by the story. And Hiccup’s parents were the proudest of all.

Hiccup was currently in the process of pushing Toothless away from Snotlout – who was pretending to be Stoick and has just interfered with Hiccup’s final test at the old killing ring. Toothless heeded Hiccup’s ‘stop’ and withdrew.

This was when an agitated voice from the other side of the room destroyed the mood.

“Spitelout!”

Everybody turned towards the Mead Hall entry. Towards the centre of the room marched Mildew, with his staff in one hand, his loyal sheep under the armpit, and a particularly nasty expression on his face. Many scowled in displeasure, cursing the old man for interrupting with their entertainment. It didn’t affect his determination in targeting Spitelout.

“I need to have a word with you about that Bog Burglar spawn of yours!” he said without preamble.

Spitelout didn’t bother standing up. “Bibi, this one’s for you” he told the Bog captain, ignoring the old man, and returned to sipping his drink.

Bloodybee sighed and approached the newcomer. “Alright. What is it about my daughter?" she asked without much interest.

Mildew glared at her, boiling with fury. “I’ll have you know, that this brat of yours tried to rob me!"

Bloodybee raised her eyebrows. “No” she said in surprise.

“Yes!” exclaimed Mildew. “I go to the outhouse, I hear some commotion, I ran back, and this little thief is in my storage room!"

“No!” exclaimed Bloodybee, genuinely moved by the revelation.

“Yes! Thank gods my little Fungus got in her way, or she'd have robbed me! You better take responsibility!" demanded Mildew.

The captain made a serious face. “You are right, Sir. This is unforgivable” she admitted. “No respectable Bog Burglar gets caught red-handed. I’ll give the kid such a thrashing she won’t get near you until she could steal the pants off of you without being caught. You have my word"

Mildew was beside himself with fury. “Such insolence! You!” he called towards Stoick. “You are the chief! Do your job and punish the criminal!”

The chief eyed him dangerously. He was not about to help anybody who used this tone against him. “I believe her mother already promised to do it” he said firmly. “Besides, from what I understand, Avalanche did not steal anything”

“No, but when she saw me, she took my poor Fungus and threw him at me!” shouted Mildew, gesturing his sheep. “The both of us were hurt! I demand compensation!”

Bloodybee didn’t bother pretending to be impressed. “Too bad, Sir. I haven’t anything valuable on me at the moment” she said in a cocky manner. Then, developing a mischievous smirk, regarded the old man in a sudden moment of inspiration. “But perhaps you’d be interested in a more... personal compensation?” she suggested in an unusually sweet voice.

Mildew was puzzled. “Umh, what?”

Bloodybee neared herself to him, her eyes sparkling and good hand tracing the feminine assets alluringly. “I could massage the parts of you that were hurt” she offered, reaching out for his hand. With just her thumb she eased his hold on the staff. As it fell towards his shoulder, she pulled the freed hand towards herself. “And other parts as well” she added, placing the wrinkled palm on her ample bosom, revealed by a low-cut blouse.

Mildew backed off in such haste as if he burnt himself. Wide-eyed and red-faced, he struggled just to keep breathing. His hold of Fungus tightened so much the sheep cried in pain. For a moment it seemed that the old man would faint, or have a heart attack, or worse. He tried to say something, but it came out as incomprehensible groan. Anger, shame and disgust twisted his features, manifesting themselves in violent gestures and further inhuman groans. Finally the old man waved his hand and headed for the exit, muttering under his breath.

Bloodybee observed his departure in shameless satisfaction.

Meanwhile Snotlout stared at her in indignation. “MOM! You wouldn’t!” he exclaimed, horrified.

“Easy, sonny” she waved her hand dismissively. “I knew he wouldn’t have the balls to take me up on this offer. It’s obvious that his equipment has the size of a dried grape, and about as much usability” she said simply. Ignoring the utter terror these words caused in her firstborn, she glanced around the room, becoming serious. “More importantly... AVALANCHE! Get your incompetent butt over here!" she yelled angrily.

The girl slowly emerged from underneath one of the tables. She looked no less scared than Mildew was a moment ago. And rightfully so. There was no doubt a major scolding was coming, even by Viking standards.

“Caught red-handed? Really?” the captain asked her daughter, when the girl came close enough.

“But mom, I was doing just fine!” said Avalanche defensively. “Before that sheep knocked a...”

“NO EXCUSES!” roared Bloodybee, almost blowing the child off her feet. “In this job you either are perfect or dead! There is no in-between! Weren’t you listening when I told you all that?”

“I was,” Avalanche said hastily, “but..."

But Bloodybee’s attention was elsewhere. “All the hard work you put into your training,” she growled, prowling around like a caged animal, “all the achievements, all the sweat, bruises and sore muscles, was it all for naught?!”

“No, I really...!”

“Sure!” Bloodybee threw her fists into the air. “Piss all over your reputation, if it means so little to you, go ahead! But what about me?” she looked down at her daughter, her eyes piercing Avalanche’s. “I always brag about you, you know that. How skilled you are. What a fine burglar, wrestler, and what not you are. That no mother ever has had a finer daughter. I say that every chance I get!” she glared at the child dangerously. “What am I supposed to say to my crew now? You’ve made me into a laughingstock of the tribe!”

“Mom, I’m sorry!” Avalanche squeaked in despair.

Bloodybee shook her head. “No, Avalanche” she said in resignation. “I am sorry. For not teaching you well enough. But I will correct this mistake right now”

Her eyes hardened as she grabbed a hand attachment from a scabbard that hung at her belt – the same spike-ended attachment she had used earlier that day when battling Spitelout – and clicked it into the base on her glove.

Avalanche gulped.

“For starters,” said Bloodybee, “let us review penalties that await burglars caught in the act”

Faster than a lightening, she grabbed her daughter’s right wrist and slammed it against the table, twisting the girl’s arm painfully. Avalanche whined, her wide eyes alternating between her captured limb and her mother’s grave serious face.

“Most commonly,” continued Bloodybee, “burglars caught in the act have their hand cut off”

The metal spike stroked the girl’s wrist, subtle as a fly, and more intimidating than a hornet. As Avalanche held her breath, her mother spoke on.

“That is, if they are lucky. You just might be caught by a real peculiar fellow. He just might feel like having fun and ask you what you prefer, a long arm or a short arm, without explaining which of these means cutting your arm at the wrist and which at the elbow. I wonder, what would you choose?"

The captain’s voice was as cold as the metal spike with which she traced her child’s skin. Avalanche was paralyzed with fear, trying her hardest not to breathe, begging silently for her captor to hide the sting. Alas, Bloodybee was far from done.

“Of course, they could also throw you into jail. You probably could escape, but not before running into some senior prisoners. You think just because you’re a child you'd get a cell all to yourself? No, they'd put you with the big girls. Or the big boys. And trust me, you don't want to know what big boy do to little girls in prison”

The more the woman spoke, the more her words reminded of leeches, slowly sucking the very life out of Avalanche. Meanwhile the blade traveled up, brushing the girl’s jaw line, setting right under her chin.

“Also, we must not forget the death penalty. You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to kill a little girl”

The captain’s emotionless eyes penetrated her child’s, wide with fear, surrounded by cold sweat. Bloodybee took a couple of intense seconds just staring like this, as if she wanted to make sure the message sunk in. Then – slowly – she withdrew her blade. A blink of an eye later she slammed it onto the table, between two of Avalanche’s fingers.

Time appeared to have stopped at this very moment.

Avalanche looked at the blade, stuck so dangerously close to her fingers, and failed to comprehend how it happened. She looked up at her mother, her gaze confused and begging for answers. But Bloodybee was no less cold than the blade she swung. Indifferent as a rock, she drew herself closer, looked her daughter directly in the eyes, and spoke in a tone deprived of all emotions.

“This was the last time you embarrassed me. Do I make myself clear?”

Avalanche nodded, or at least she hoped she did.

“Good” decided Bloodybee. She then let go of her daughter’s wrist and pulled the blade out of the table. She disconnected the spiked attachment from her glove, put it back into the scabbard, and turned her back at the girl. She then sat herself back at the table, grabbed a mug, and took a big sip. Anger has left her features. She now bore the look of somebody who has just returned home after a whole day of hard labor. She was tired, and little else.

Meanwhile Avalanche was still staring at her with wide eyes. The scolding may have been over, but her body did not register it yet. Every muscle, every inch of skin and every organ within her told her she was not safe yet. The memories would stay with her for a long time. The fact that her mother moved on so easily only intensified her inner turmoil.

Unbeknownst to the child, the majority of the Vikings who had witnessed the scene understood what she was going through. Memories from such events were like an infection. They spread all over the body, impairing all the inner organs, causing unmanageable pain. One could fight an infection, but it was a demanding battle. For how could but you really defeat something you couldn’t see? You had to be a real tough person. A true Viking. If you weren’t, you were not worth the attention.

This was why majority of the Vikings in the Hall followed Bloodybee’s example and returned to their food, drinks and conversations. The child received some proper scolding. Now she had to be left to her own devices. Time would tell if her mother managed to make a Viking out of her.

There were, however, a couple of individuals eager to twist the blade in the wound.

“Congratulations, Avalanche” said Snotlout mockingly, emerging besides his sister. “You didn’t pee your pants”

His input served to remind the girl that time was still flowing. And helped her regain control of her own body somewhat. “Shut up” she muttered and started to walk away.

“Oh, but I really am impressed” insisted Snotlout, following her. “I don’t think Hiccup ever got told off quite as bad as you did just now, and that means something”

That did it. Avalanche turned back and threw herself at her brother in blind fury.

He got out of her reach and pushed her off course, whereupon she fell flat on the floor. Whereupon he hopped onto her back, almost making her spit out her own lungs.

“You disappoint me, Ava” he said in mock sadness. “I thought you were better than this”

The girl attempted to lift herself, but could not bear the weight of the boy on top of her.

“Let go of me!” she demanded angrily.

Snotlout’s eyes sparkled in triumph. “Not until you say please”

“Buzz off!” Avalanched squirmed and struggled, but she had no leverage. Snotlout had her trapped. And was enjoying every moment of it.

“Say please!” he repeated.

As the siblings wrestled, everybody else observed in anticipation. Nothing excited Vikings as much as a fight. Some cheered, some whistled, some yelled “Blood, blood!”. Spitelout looked as excited as a kid on the Snoggletog morning. Bloodybee looked like she couldn’t care less. Neither of them moved from their place.

Hiccup, on the other hand, hurried to Avalanche’s aid.

“Knock it off, Snotlout!” he demanded firmly. “She’s had enough for one night!”

The Hooligan heir’s agitated tone had no effect on the bigger boy,

“Hiccup, can’t you see I’m teaching my sister how to stick up for herself?” he asked in a patronizing tone, as if he were explaining the obvious to a complete moron.

“As a matter of fact, no, I don’t” said Hiccup, annoyed. “All I see is you torturing her”

Snotlout snorted. “Torturing? Phew! This is how we have fun! Right, Ava?”

“Go suck rocks!”

“What? Not tight enough? Here you go!” he promptly grabbed both her wrists and pulled her arms towards himself, which caused her to cry out in pain.

“Snotlout, stop it!” demanded Hiccup, increasingly worried about Snotlout possibly causing serious damage to Avalanche.

“Not until she says please!” insisted Snotlout, amused with both Hiccup’s miserable attempts at rescue and his sister’s helpless squirming. “Say please!”

Hiccup’s mind raced. Snotlout won’t let go willingly, cause he loves tormenting people. Avalanche won’t break, cause it would mean even more embarrassment than she’s already had tonight. Their parents won’t move a finger, cause their kids’ problems aren’t their own. Astrid might’ve been inclined to help, but her parents surely were keeping her in place – Avalanche was, after all, a Bog Burglar, and Snotlout a fellow Hairy Hooligan. To support a member of another tribe, even an allied tribe, over one of your own could be interpreted as disloyalty. Hiccup knew his own father would probably scold him for interfering with the fight for this very reason, but no major repercussions will follow – people knew he had his own way of doing things. He just wish some of these people would support him on this.

As if to answer his wishes, a figure appeared by his side and shouted “Let go of her!”

It was his mother.

For a moment Hiccup was startled. He seriously didn’t think anybody would back him up. For one thing, the incident he was trying to stop was, by Viking standards, a regular scuffle between two siblings – something he shouldn’t feel the need to interfere with. Furthermore, he made a demand he proved incapable of enforcing, which put him in a bad light, and Vikings typically didn’t side with losers.

Fortunately, Valka was not a typical Viking. She was not okay with what Snotlout was doing to Avalanche. She was not okay with the siblings’ parents acting like it wasn’t a big deal. And she sure as hell was not okay with her son becoming an object of ridicule just because he stood up to a bully.

Hiccup was glad to have such a mother.

Snotlout, meanwhile, was puzzled.

Valka eyed him dangerously. “Haven’t you heard? Let her go, this instance!” she demanded, her tone deadly serious.

Snotlout was visibly at a loss. He did not expect an intervention from an adult. He failed to process why Valka would become involved in his private matters. She was the wife of the chief. She shouldn’t care. It was something new. And made no sense.

“Why?” he blurted finally, incapable of expressing his concerns in a more complex utterance.

“Cause if you won’t, I’ll tell everybody what you did back at the Sanctuary” threatened Valka.

Snotlout faltered at that. “You wouldn’t” he said.

“The night before we left the Sanctuary,” started Valka loudly, “Hiccup’s condition worsened dramatically. This was when Snotlout…”

Snotlout jumped off his sister in such haste as if she just caught fire.

“Okay, okay!” he called in panic. “I’m off her! You happy now?”

Fortunately for Snotlout, Valka wasn’t about to spare him any more attention. As the boy backed off, she approached his victim, who was still laying on the floor.

“Ava, are you alright?” the woman asked, her concern genuine.

Avalanche looked up at her, terrified and confused like a Terrible Terror cornered by Monstrous Nightmares. She needed a moment to comprehend that she was free again. And when she finally grasped it, she hurried to her feet and away from Valka, her features twisted by anger.

“I had it all under control!” she yelled in fury. “Stupid dragon freak!”

With that she turned and bolted out of the Mead Hall. Still, not fast enough for Valka not to notice tears forming in her eyes.

The Dragon Whisperer stared after the girl, taken aback by the child’s hostility, but understanding that Avalanche needed to get away from this place. It was only in solitude that she could allow herself to cry, to truly come to terms with what she’s been through. Poor, poor child.

“What, you thought she was going to thank you?” asked Bloodybee from her seat. “Girl, you really spend too much time in the clouds”

Valka whirled to glare at other woman. “Why didn’t you stop this?” she demanded. “Hasn’t your daughter suffered enough?”

The Bog Captain was unaffected by the accusation in the Dragon Whisperer’s tone. “If she lets herself be provoked like this, then no, she definitely has not suffered enough” she said firmly. “Besides, if she cannot hold her own against one boy, she deserves all the thrashing she can get”

Valka could not help but feel increasing hatred for this woman. “What sort of a mother stands by when her child gets tortured?” she asked, outraged.

She knew that very instance she shouldn’t have. That getting into an argument with this particular person in this particular time and place would end badly for her. Still, she just couldn’t stop herself. And was about to regret it.

Bloodybee looked puzzled, as if she truly had no idea what Valka’s problem was. The next second she was annoyed, obviously deciding the other woman was starting a fight for the sake of starting a fight. And produced the most stinging reply she could have come up with.

“You, of all people, should not be asking such questions”

This might have lead to bloodshed if the chief hadn’t interfered.

“Enough!” roared Stoick, approaching the two women hastily. He was pissed and not about to tolerate this commotion any longer.

“Listen up, Bloodybee” he addressed the Captain. “Valka is my wife, and mother of my heir. And you WILL address her with due respect. Otherwise I will send you back home with a letter to your chief, describing what an incompetent oaf she chose to represent her tribe. And I WILL shove a copy into every cavity there is in your body. Do I make myself clear?”

Bloodybee shrugged her shoulders. “Geez, what’s the big deal? Yes, you do, chief” she added, putting her arms between herself and the not so patient man.

Deeming her answer satisfactory, Stoick turned to his wife.

“And you, Valka” he spoke, just as seriously as he did to Bloodybee. “You have NO right to lecture commanders from our allied tribes how to discipline their subordinates. I FORBID you. Do you understand?”

A part of Valka wanted to be angry with him, feeling that she didn’t deserve such harsh treatment. Another part was frustrated with herself, for allowing this to happen. The most dominant emotion, however, was frustration with this entire situation. She’s been there before, she knew that she was doomed the moment she opened her mouth. It hurt her more than it probably should, given the experience she’s had. What did it matter that her anger was justified and Bloodybee’s actions worthy of contempt if the society thought otherwise? Stoick, Bloodybee, and all others were against her. They made it clear that she was not supposed to feel the way she did. And though she felt like they were depriving her of the most basic human right, she had no choice but accept defeat. And this was what she did.

“Yes Sir” she said silently.

“Good” nodded Stoick. “Now shake hands and make up”

Like children – thought Valka, not without disdain. She looked up and saw that Bloodybee was taking off her glove – showing absolutely no signs of discontent. She likely decided not to over-think Stoick’s orders and do as he says, so she could return to her mug and forget about the whole affair.

But then – to Valka’s utter astonishment – the Captain slid off her linen sleeve.

When they first shook hands back at the docks, Bloodybee only took off the glove. When she had to shake bare hands with Stoick, she did so with apparent discontent. The hand she offered to Valka now was bare and vulnerable. Yet, the captain herself was perfectly at ease.

“No hard feelings, Dragon Whisperer” she said, smiling innocently.

The meaning behind this subtle gesture was clear to Valka. In Bloodybee’s eyes, her husband was a force to be reckoned with. She was not.

Even in going along with Stoick’s wishes, the Bog Burglar managed to slap her in the face.

Still, there was nothing Valka could do to return the blow. Suppressing the pain she shook the other woman’s hand.

“No hard feelings, Captain” she muttered. In thoughts, however, she decided that Bloodybee the Steelsting would never be her friend.

“That settles it” announced Stoick. “Party on, everyone. The night’s still young and the tables full! Musicians! Play something lively!”

He didn’t need to repeat himself – the band started a happy tune and the Vikings returned to feasting. As if virtually nothing had happened.

In the noise that filled the Mead Hall, nobody paid attention to Stoick whispering to his wife: “Meet me at the latrines”

Valka nodded. Of course, she still had to get a proper scolding.

(…)

Walking towards the spot designated by Stoick, Valka didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This situation was painfully reminiscent of so many others that took place in her youth. Again and again she tried to change the world for the better. Again she started with all the right intentions and all the right reasons, only to learn that not a single person saw eye to eye with her.

Back when Bloodybee was delivering the scolding to her daughter, a few of the spectators appeared scared. Most of them, however, seemed amused, impressed, or both. Many exchanged looks and nods of approval and satisfaction, silently praising the captain for the intensity with which she disciplined her daughter. The overly dramatic insults and unnecessary physical violence had their acknowledgement. In their eyes, that woman was a great mother.

When Valka defended Avalanche, the non-verbal feedback was way different. People shook their heads and sighed. The looks they gave her were those of pity. In their eyes, she was ignorant.

Moments like this reminded her why she had written this population off all these years ago. Vikings were a hopeless case.

Still, she had promised she would try and fit in. She had committed herself to overseeing the integration of dragons and Vikings. She had claimed she was willing to accept the obligations vested into her as the chief’s wife in exchange for freedom in training the Dragon Riders. She belonged to two worlds and had to act accordingly. And be prepared to face the consequences of failing to do so.

Finally she reached her destination. One of the corridors lead from the Mead Hall to a room in which a couple wooden shacks were built and a pile of buckets stood by the wall. Vikings came here to satisfy their physiological needs during feasts (female Vikings, that is – drunken male Vikings had no problem using a fireplace for this purpose). Stoick was leaning against a wall. As Valka approached him, she noticed that he wasn’t angry. He was sad.

She decided to save him the trouble of pointing out what she did wrong.

“I know what you’re going to say, Stoick” she said promptly. “Here I go again, making a scene, acting like an outsider and not a proper Viking, causing you problems and tarnishing our family’s name. You’ve told me so many times that my way is not the way things are done, that there are times when it’s okay to be a defiant, crazy nuisance that I am,
and times when I have to act like a proper chief’s wife, but of course, I never listen. Not to mention I’m probably the last person who should ever be lecturing others on parenting”

She grinned despite herself, albeit only for a second.

“But, Stoick, I had to” she continued in all seriousness. “I may be a stupid woman, an outsider, but I don’t understand how purposefully humiliating your child is necessary to make a Viking out of her. And why? Because she made a mistake? Does that justify treating her like garbage? Why should one failure overshadow all those successes she’s supposedly had throughout her life? And since when does being a Viking mean being perfect in everything? What’s wrong with being average at something?” she revolted, giving voice to the outrage and disgust she harbored towards the Viking ways. She couldn’t help it – she had to let it out.

“What Bloodybee and Spitelout do to those kids is no different than what we do to livestock. The moment they stop giving milk or laying eggs, we slaughter them. Am I really the only person in this tribe who is not okay with people treating their children like cattle?!”

She yelled, staring into her husband’s eyes, surprised by her own boldness and

“This is why I had to stay away” she continued sadly. “If I had been here when Hiccup was growing up, we’d probably argue about what’s best for him all the time. He’d be torn between his model Viking father and his crazy mother. And he’d end up hating himself for not being able to please us both. I just wanted to spare him this. If I had known he’d turn out to be just like me, even without me being there…”

She stopped mid-sentence. Was there a point in venturing into what ifs? There wasn’t, she concluded. She’s made enough excuses. She’s spoken her mind. It was Stoick’s turn to speak now. Thus, with a heavy sigh, she hung her head and waited for what he had to say.

Stoick considered her solemnly for a long moment.

“This wasn’t about parenting, Val” he said calmly. “It was about leadership”

She looked up, slightly surprised.

“Believe me, I have no problem with you breaking fights between kids” he assured, somewhat motivated by having earned her attention. “Bloodybee was done yelling at Avalanche at this point, so you showed her no disrespect. But the way you handled Snotlout... you embarrassed yourself as a commander”

She looked intrigued, so he proceeded to explain – trying his hardest to be substantive and delicate at the same time.

“You are the Dragon Master. Snotlout is a Dragon Rider. Your subordinate. If you want him to do something, you give him an order. If he disobeys, you punish him. Make him clean dragon poop for a week or something. If that doesn’t work, you exclude him from your forces. This is how it’s done”

He looked at her, troubled, maybe even embarrassed for lecturing her like this, but determined to finish what he had started.

“What you did back there, that was unprofessional. That kid openly disrespected you. You had all the right reasons to discipline him, with words as well as your staff, and how did you get him to obey you? With blackmail. And everybody saw it”

There was a hint of anger in his voice and on his face – as she did let him down – but mostly there was concern.

“Val, you know as well as I do that we are going to need an army” he continued sadly. “An army of Vikings and dragons working together. I trust you to prepare our people for war with Drago Bludvist, you know I do. But if you can’t get your students to obey you, how can our people trust you as their commander?”

Valka looked down, feeling silly. Her husband made a good point. Why should anybody care what sort of a mother she was? They had no need for a mother. They needed a teacher, a warrior, a Dragon Whisperer. This was what they expected her to be competent at, not handling children. She should have realized that, but of course, she let her guilty conscience ruin everything.

As she was getting angry at herself, Stoick addressed her gently.

“Like I said, I don’t want you lecturing others on discipline. Not when you can’t get your own students to behave”

Valka took a moment to process the lecture she’s been given.

“I see” she said finally.

“I’m glad” said Stoick.

“I should be more like Bloodybee” she said in resignation.

“Nonsense” he protested. “You are in no way worse than that Thor-damned Bog Burglar. You could take her, and I bet you can burgle just as well as she can. You are brave, strong and smart. It’s just that you’re too modest. You have the power, Val, and the brain to know how to use it. You just have to use it”

She smiled weakly. “If only it was that easy…”

Suddenly, a noise caught their attention. In the corridor leading to the latrines stood Hiccup, in a rather awkward pose, as if he had been about to trip a second ago. Behind him stood Toothless, displaying a toothless smile of encouragement.

“Umh” muttered the boy, correcting his stance. “Don’t mind us. We were just… Alright, we were listening” he admitted with a sigh. “And we are going to speak. That is, I am going to speak, but I’m sure it will be on behalf of both of us”

He gave the Night Fury a nod and they both approached the two adults. The boy was bold and the dragon pleased.

“Mom, I wanted to thank you” Hiccup addressed Valka. “For Ava. What you did for her was endearing. And I’m sure she’s grateful, only she cannot admit it”

The woman responded with a genuine smile. Those were simple words, but they made her feel a whole lot better. “You were rather endearing yourself, son. You stood up for Avalanche” she remarked, proud of her boy. “I’m sure she will appreciate it”

Hiccup shook his head. “Not a chance” he stated a matter of fact. “In the end, I couldn’t help her. And even if I did, I am ‘only’ a boy. And the only thing worse than being beaten by a boy is being rescued by one” he chuckled. “It’s probably good that I failed to help her”

“Oh well” said Valka, amused. “I still think you did the right thing”

“So did you” said Hiccup. “And, for all it’s worth, I think you are a great teacher. And a great person. And I’m really glad you’re here. And that you’re not like Bloodybee. Really, thanks for that. And to you, Dad” he nodded at Stoick in a sudden moment of inspiration. “You guys are both great”

The next moment the boy found himself embraced by his mother. The chief embraced the both of them and Toothless rubbed his head against them. Valka was so touched she almost cried tears of joy. Stoick, who rarely heard his son praise him in any way, was no less moved. That moment titles and cultural norms did not matter – only love could squeeze in between the family members. They had each other and nothing else mattered.

“And Mom?” whispered Hiccup.

“Huh?”

“What was it that Snotlout did to me back at the Sanctuary?”

Valka chuckled. “You know what? I’ll tell you if he ever gets out of line again. But don’t worry, it was something really nice”

“Oh” Hiccup rose his eyebrows. “Now this is surprising”

“Isn’t it just?” agreed Valka happily. “Turns out even Snotlout has a nice side”

Then, in a moment of a rather surprising switch in the atmosphere, her smile turned into a mischievous grin. “As for myself, I have a nasty side. And I think I should explore it tonight”

The father and son exchanged puzzled glances. This didn’t sound good. “What do you want to do?” Stoick asked.

Valka was pleased with herself. And emanated with the aura of conspiracy. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, happen to know the layout of Bloodybee’s ship, do you?”

Chapter Text

When the Haddock family returned to the Great Hall roughly an hour later, they were all in suspiciously good moods. The spouses, their son, and the Night Fury all walked with their heads high, greeting others with hand gestures, demonstrating broad smiles and radiating with shameless satisfaction. People weren’t quite sure what to make of this, but one thing was clear – this kind of happiness could only have come from pulling some serious dirt on somebody. And everybody prayed it was somebody else.

The family made their way towards Spitelout and Bloodybee, who were enjoying themselves on the dance floor. Bloodybee noticed them first.

“Where have you been?” she asked happily, failing to notice the malice behind their smiles.

“Oh, we just needed to make a trip to the latrine” said Valka carelessly. “You wouldn’t believe what an interesting book we found on the way”

She lifted a book, which she had been holding under her armpit. Nobody noticed it before, since her suspiciously good mood stole their attention, but now all the eyes fell on the volume. A book with a solid leather cover, secured with a belt.

Bloodybee’s eyes snapped wide open as she pulled the book from Valka’s hands. Agitated, she opened it and scanned the content. As she looked up at the chief’s wife, her skin paled by a good couple of shades.

“Where’d you get this?” she asked in a weak voice.

“Oh, is it yours?” Valka asked with mock concern. “How strange. I found it on a trip to the latrine. Completely unguarded. You’re lucky I value books so much. Otherwise I might have used it to wipe my butt” she chuckled.

Bloodybee stared at her is complete disbelief.

Deeming the result satisfactory, Valka smiled sweetly, giving the captain a pat on the cheek. She then turned to her husband, idyllic and carefree like the first sign of spring. “So, darling, shall we dance?”

Stoick nodded, offering her his arm and beaming all over his face. “With pleasure, my love. Hey, Rusty boy!” he yelled jovially. “Sing us something bouncy!”

Rusty hurried to take the lead singer’s spot. The band readied their instruments. Stoick and Valka wasted no time and drifted into a dance, forgetting the Viking lot and what not. Meanwhile Spitelout eyed the mother of his children worriedly. She looked as pale as if all the blood had evaporated from her veins.

“Bibi?” he asked carefully.

She didn’t answer. She turned her back and left the Hall in a dashing sprint. He did however catch a glimpse of her eyebrows lowering, veins pulsing, and jaws clenching. It was safe to assume that whoever was guarding her ship right now was about to get a thrashing that will make Avalanche's scolding look like hugs and kisses.

(…)

Bog Burglars known as Snowflake and Mudpie – who had been designated to watch over the Sparrowhawk that night – were enjoying themselves as much as the circumstances allowed. They danced on the deck, singing happy songs. Admired the stars. Made up creepy stories and attempted to scare each other.

But the fate that befell them easily outdid everything they could’ve imagined.

All of a sudden a powerful punch massacred Snowflake’s nose and threw her off her feet. Then Mudpie bent into halves, as a well aimed kick drilled into her stomach. Immediately another blow sent her spinning. Snowflake barely had time to open her eyes when something grabbed her leg and smashed her against the still spinning Mudpie. Both women fell to the ground, whereupon somebody’s legs hammered onto their rib cages and somebody’s hands grabbed their throats.

The attacker was their captain, Bloodybee. And she was mad as a Monstrous Nightmare.

“I’ll have your heads for this!” she yelled savagely.

Snowflake and Mudpie stared at her in complete shock, struggling just to keep breathing. The captain’s palms felt like heated iron against their throats, and her face looked so red it seemed to be catching fire.

Fortunately, the air supply chain was restored rapidly, as the attacker needed her arms to flash a book in her victims' faces.

“What is this? What. Is. THIS?!” she demanded, eying her subordinates dangerously.

The two women knew this object very well. “Umh… your rutter?” uttered Snowflake, who was lucky in that she got trapped by Bloodybee’s crippled hand, and thus recovered from the choking a tad faster than her comrade.

“Exactly!” yelled Bloodybee. “All secrets of the sea, maps of all lands I’ve been to, all my knowledge on navigation and geography is in this book!” she roared, clapping her crippled hand against the precious volume. “And you two imbeciles let it get stolen?!”

The accusation was most surprising and absolutely terrifying.

“What? No, captain, we wouldn’t!” blurted Snowflake.

“Nobody’s been to your cabin, we swear!” added Mudpie.

“Oh really?” Bloodybee rose her eyebrows. “Then how come the chief’s wife just waltzed into the Great Hall with my rutter in her hands?!”

Snowflake and Mudpie were astonished.

“She did?”

“But that’s impossible!”

“YOU are impossible!” Bloodybee jumped to her feet and rushed towards her cabin. “See for yourselves how well you guarded my…”

At this point she swung the door wide open, looked inside, and went still.

This scared her subordinates even more than her outburst.

The two women got to her feet, walked towards their captain, and peeked into her cabin. There, in the middle of the floor, was a puddle. A puddle of urine.

Urine. On the floor. In a Bog Burglar captain’s cabin.

All three women were speechless for a moment.

“HOW?” uttered Bloodybee finally.

“Wow…” whispered Mudpie in awe. “Could she have hidden behind him?”

The question earned her the captain's undivided attention.

“Umh… “

“EXPLAIN”

Mudpie gulped. It seemed she had to finish gathering the wood for her funeral pile.

“Right. So, umh. The boy came here. Hiccup. On his Night Fury. Said the party was dull and he wanted some real fun”

“Then his father came too” added Snowflake. “Said we have a contest. Rope pulling. We against the dragon”

“We won”

“Yup”

Bloodybee considered them sternly. “Which way did Hiccup come to the ship?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“From above. Landed right there” Snowflake pointed at the ship’s bow, which was directly opposite from the door to the captain’s cabin at the stern of the ship.

“And the chief?” Bloodybee continued the investigation.

“Normally, through the footbridge”

“Did you see him walk in?”

“Well, no” admitted Snowflake. “Came in when we were talking to Hiccup”

“But t’was only a moment, he can’t have done anything” insisted Mudpie.

Bloodybee sighed. “Okay, moving on. Where were you all positioned when this contest was going on?”

“Hiccup and dragon were pulling t’wards the bow, into the air” explained Snowflake. “We were standing here, pulling t’wards the stern. The chief was standing behind us”

“But he can’t have done nutting’, M’am!” assured Mudpie. “All the time he cheered for Hiccup”

“Yup, he didn’t move from this spot, sure thing” agreed Snowflake.

“In other words,” started Bloodybee, “the boy made sure you looked away, the father made so much noise you wouldn’t hear a thing, and their compliance was free to access my room?”

The two subordinates looked at each other, then at their feet. This really did sound like the most probable scenario. And made them look like total imbeciles.

Seeing their embarrassment, Bloodybee sighed and asked on “How long did this contest last?”

Mudpie hesitated. “Do no. Kinda long”

“Five minutes maybe” offered Snowflake.

“Five minutes!” revolted Bloodybee. “A dragon that could’ve pulled the both of you into the sea in mere seconds wrestles you for five minutes you don’t find it a wee bit suspicious?!”

“But it was crippled!” Mudpie blurted. Wrong move. Bloodybee grabbed her by the tunic and threw her into the open cabin, face-straight into the puddle.

“I should have the two of you keelhauled all the way from here to Bog Isles!” she roared, again turning as ferocious as a Monstrous Nightmare. Her subordinates cowered, knowing very well they were in for severe consequences. Especially now, realizing just how badly they let themselves be fooled.

In the five minutes they pulled the rope Valka had broken the captain’s cabin’s lock, sneaked inside, found the rutter, and left unnoticed. And she still had the nerve to piss on the floor.

They never noticed she was there.

Impossible as it seemed, the size difference between the woman and her husband made it possible. Stoick was so vast the slim Valka could easily have hidden behind him. Moreover, since she rides dragons on daily basis, she is bound to have a real tight grip, and should have had no problems holding onto her husband’s back while keeping her legs off the ground. Add to that the fact that Stoick wears a huge chiefly cape, and it becomes quite probable he could have smuggled his wife aboard.

The Haddock family hoaxed Bloodybee’s guards – and thus Bloodybee herself.

All the muscles in the captain’s body clenched. This was a disaster. An utterly, completely, earth-shattering disaster. One she couldn’t wipe under the rug. Everybody saw Valka’s triumph in the Mead Hall. Everybody knew she had burgled a Bog Burglar. Stolen Bloodybee’s rutter from her very own ship.

And it was Bloodybee’s own fault, since she had entrusted her ship to these two morons.

The captain eyed Snowflake and Mudpie dangerously. The two imbeciles were still cowering, awaiting the blows she was yet to deliver. She was tempted, sure thing. But she also knew how to prioritize.

“You two clean this place up” she told her subordinates sternly. “And don’t you dare mention this… BONUS to anybody”

Chances are Valka would boast about her achievement to anybody who’d listen, but that wouldn’t stop Bloodybee from trying to save her face somewhat.

“Yes Ma’am” muttered the two unfortunate guards, grateful for the time being to still be alive.

Done with the imbeciles, the captain focused her attention on the Mead Hall. She had some business to settle.

(...)

Valka was having a great time, dancing, drinking, and being merry. People were wondering what exactly had happened, but neither she, nor her boys were going to spill the beans. The escapade was their little secret. A deliciously sweet secret. And quite a leverage over Bloodybee. Now that she knew what they were capable of, she’ll mind her tongue some more. And if she won’t, they might very well come up with another scheme to embarrass her. It was surprisingly enjoyable.

Then, inevitably, came the point when the Dragon Whisperer needed to relieve herself. Thus she went to the latrine and did her business.

And then, as she was tying her leggings, she was approached by Bloodybee. Who was holding a bucket of water, a towel, and a piece of chestnut soap.

This was a rather surprising sight.

“I’m used to thinking of people as either weak or strong” spoke the captain without preamble. “Like I told my daughter, in this job, you are either perfect or dead. There is no in-between. But you?” she gestured to all of Valka, making a face. “You, Valka Wrinkly, are a mystery to me. On the one hand, you clearly are a formidable warrior, capable of surviving in complete wilderness on your own, and pretty damn clever, judging by the feat you pulled on me. Not to mention all this dragon whispering stuff. Yet, you act and talk as if you just came ashore from a land far, far away. Half the time you’re as skittish as a deer. We praise you, and you get defensive. As if you wanted nothing to do with Vikings. As if you were disgusted with us. With your tribe. With Vikings in general” she exclaimed, horrified as though it was a scandal of the century. “And the way you handled this situation with our kids? What exactly were you trying to achieve? Do you honestly not understand what message you communicated to everybody in the Hall? Or maybe you understand everything, but cannot stop yourself from acting the way you do? In that case, I am beginning to understand why you thought your family would be better off without you” she concluded sternly.

As the Bog captain was delivering this speech, the Dragon Whisperer could do nothing but stare. And wonder if perhaps she has had a mug or two too many. She did consider the possibility of Bloodybee seeking revenge on her, she gladly would have accepted a challenge to a duel, but this? Snotlout’s mother really did not seem like a person who’d seek to talk things over with somebody who stole her prized possession. What sort of game was this woman playing?

After a few seconds of silence, in which Valka didn’t respond, Bloodybee shifted nervously and stretched her arms, offering her interlocutor the bucket.

The gesture helped Valka snap from the shock. She still wasn’t quite sure if the words registered by her brain were the same words that the captain produced, or what the Bog Burglar’s motives were, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t particularly willing to get involved in a debate. Or waste energy wandering if she was being praised or insulted.

“Think whatever you want, Bloodybee” she said finally. “I honestly couldn’t care less”

She attempted to walk past the other woman, but Bloodybee wouldn’t let her.

“But I DO care” she insisted. “I want to understand”

Valka shook her head. “I’m afraid we just don’t speak the same language, Captain. This isn’t going to work”

“Exactly – we do NOT speak the same language” agreed the Bog Burglar. “Until now we assumed we do, at least I did, don’t know bout you, but anyway, we do know NOW. We can treat each other accordingly. I think it is worth giving a try”

Valka hesitated, sensing that whatever decision she makes right now will have severe consequences.

On the one hand, she had no wish for the company of this woman. All of their previous interactions left her confused and insecure. Any action or utterance hinting on good will on behalf of the captain seemed to have been an act, a camouflage for greed and cunningness. Bloodybee was a warrior at heart, a woman who took whatever she wanted without regard to anybody else’s feelings. A woman who tortured her own child and insulted Valka for having compassion. Could this sort of a person really be willing to sort things out? Without any hidden agenda? This wasn’t the way Vikings solved their problems.

On the other, the Dragon Whisperer could not disregard Bloodybee’s better moments. The respect she held for the sea. The way she spoke of combining strength and humility. The appreciation she expressed for Valka’s metaphor with hair, basically admitting she loved Spitelout – or at least considered him close to her heart. In moment like these Bloodybee appeared to be wise, empathetic, and warm. Could that have been a show? Or maybe there was more to this savage woman than it seemed?

Either way, this was an amazing opportunity to talk to the Bog Burglar in private, and elicit some honest answers. Answers Bloodybee could not afford to voice in public, fearing for her reputation. Explanations that could help Valka understand this tribe, which was allied with her own. And possibly learn something about Bloodybee that was worth knowing.

Valka sighed. In the end, she could not afford to turn down an offer like this. Worried she may have been, but also curious of the way the other woman’s brain worked. Also, she had to take into consideration the best interest of her tribe. She was the chief’s wife, she had to practice diplomacy. She had to at least try.

“Fine” she said finally. “But it has to work both ways. I am going to explain why I acted the way I did back when Hiccup was trying to save Avalanche, then you tell me how you perceived my actions. After that I am going to tell you how I felt watching you discipline Avalanche, and you tell me why you handled this situation the way you did. Does this sound reasonable to you?”

Bloodybee considered the offer for a moment. “Yeah, let’s do this” she agreed, having hesitated only briefly. She then put the hygiene accessories on the ground and got straight to the point. “Why did you interfere with that situation?”

Valka was suddenly anxious. She had all the best intentions, but her miserably poor social skills were a significant obstacle in communicating with pretty much all human beings. Then again, Bloodybee seemed to have learned this by now.

Deciding not to think of failure this early into the conversation, Valka focused on remembering her exact thought and feelings from before. If they were to understand each other, she had to be as thorough as possible.

“Because I wanted to show my son that I was there for him” she responded carefully. “I wanted him to know I approve of his actions and that he has my support. I wanted Avalanche to know somebody is not okay with her being treated like this, even more so that her own parents acted like it was none of their business. I also wanted Snotlout to know that it is wrong to harm others for his own amusement”

As Valka spoke, Bloodybee seemed surprisingly calm and attentive. Which augured well for the future.

“I know that I should have used my authority as his commander to make him stop,” continued Valka, “but I wasn’t thinking about ranks and power structure at that point. I just wanted him to release his sister. Does this make sense to you?”

“It does” replied the Bog Burglar. “Although your way of thinking sounds childish”

Valka resisted the urge to make a face. She wanted an honest exchange of opinion and this was exactly what she was getting. If it was to turn into a heated argument, it would not be because of her.

“So, how did you perceive my actions?” she asked, bracing herself for severe criticism. Fortunately, Bloodybee didn’t seem particularly happy about having to voice it.

“Hiccup is the future chief” stated the captain. “He’s practically a man already. He really should be fighting his own battles. He should have been able to enforce his will on Snotlout. By coming to his aid you showed the world that you don’t think him capable of getting his shit done. Do you think anybody will take him seriously now, that you solved his problem for him? You damaged his image. And yours. But you already know that. Honestly, neither of you knows how to work with people”

The opinion, though not very favorable, was delivered in a serious manner, pretty much without malice or cockiness. It made it easier for Valka to analyze it soberly.

“So you’re saying I made my son look bad by standing up for him?” she inquired. “And that by not coming to your daughter’s aid, you showed her you treat her like an adult?”

“Yes” said Bloodybee without a hint of doubt. “Ask any adult out there and they’ll tell you the same”

Valka had mixed feelings about this. “With all due respect, I doubt our children would agree with you” she voiced her concerns.

Bloodybee shrugged her shoulders. “I am well aware they wouldn’t. They’re just kids, they don’t know any better”

“And yet you insist they should be treated like they DID know” Valka pointed out. She feared she might come off a little aggressive, but this seemed like a good moment to express herself a little firmer. “Do you honestly think it is in your daughter’s best interest if you hold her to the same standards you do the rest of your crew? Wouldn’t it be better for her if you cut her some slack? After all, she is still a child”

The Bog Burglar didn’t reply instantly. She considered her crippled hand and slowly massaged the stumps. As she did so, she seemed to be thinking, wandering into the deepest nooks oh her mind. And from those depths she returned with a story.

“Many years ago I was sparring with a classmate, a girl much smaller and weaker than myself” she narrated calmly, still massaging her stumps. “All the time I've called her names and bragged about my own superiority. All of a sudden, she made an unexpected turn and took two of my fingers. I'm not sure which one of use was more surprised. At first, it didn’t even hurt. I don’t think I understood that I was crippled for life. All that mattered was that she made me look bad. I was so pissed I jumped at her, pinned her to the ground, and beat her in blind fury. I didn't notice when she reached out for her dagger and pointed it right at my fist. That cost me another two fingers”

Valka listened attentively, amazed that she was being treated with a tale this personal. Especially from somebody whom she got to know as devoid of feelings and deeper relationships.

Perhaps this confession served as self-imposed penalty for having underestimated Valka before. Or, unlikely as it seemed, the proud captain had to bare her soul to another woman every now and then. And considered Valka appropriate for the purpose, based on criteria the Dragon Whisperer could not determine. Whatever the reason, Bloodybee seemed more human now than she had through the entire day.

Finally, the captain met Valka’s eyes. And her face left no doubt that the story she just told cast a shadow on her entire life. And remembering it was not at all pleasant.

“How old do you think I was when that happened, huh? 13. A little older than Avalanche is now. So no, I am not going to cut her some slack. I am going to hold her to the same standards as I do my crew, because I want her to live a long, satisfactory life. Even if she lives all of it hating my guts”

Having hear this, Valka was moved to the core. And knew in her heart of hearts that the woman in front of her was the true Bloodybee. The Bloodybee who compared dragons to ships, who believed that Vikings had to be strong and humble at the same time, who admitted – indirectly as it may have been – that she did care for her family.

She wasn’t mistaken before. Behind this cocky demeanor was a heart capable of love.

The conclusion was further supported by the captains wan half-smile and the following question.

“I suppose this makes sense to you, doesn’t it? After all, you chose to stay away from your family so that Hiccup had a chance at surviving to adulthood and becoming a proper Viking. You’d rather never see him again than know your influence brought him to his doom. You said so yourself. Why you act so surprised when I do pretty much the same, I have no idea”

Realization spread across Valka’s brain.

“Is that what you meant back then?” she asked, astonished. “When you said that I, of all people, should not be asking such questions?”

“Of course” said Bloodybee, looking puzzled. “What else did you think?”

“That you were berating me” admitted Valka. “For criticizing your parenting when I have abandoned my own son”

“You kidding?” frowned Bloodybee. “Why should I be berating you for something I admire you for?”

“Oh, I don’t know” scowled Valka. “I just…”

She stopped, overtaken by anxiety. It was happening again. A little confusion, a seed of doubt, and suddenly she found herself on the edge of what could and could not be endured. Instantly she redirected all her energy into calming down, regaining the balance and proceeding with the conversation. She could do this. She could…

But should she?

“I don’t understand people” Valka sighed, too tired to keep the defenses up. “I do my best, but it’s so darn hard. I know combat, I know dragons, but people make me freeze up. I don’t know how to play your games. I get sick of searching for the right words. I’m sick of wondering if I’m being insulted or praised, if my words could be seen as insult or praise, I just cannot stand it. I want to hop on a dragon and get the hell out, to free myself from their judging stares and backstabbing and deriving pleasure from causing harm to others. It makes no sense”

She groaned, shaking her head in exasperation. She hated saying those words. Hated her insecurities. Hated how she always seemed to hurt either herself or her family. And above all, inevitably, hated herself.

“You were right about me” she told Bloodybee. “I may look like a Viking, but I am an outsider. And I doubt that could ever change”

She honestly couldn’t tell why she said all this. Maybe because of Bloodybee’s earlier confession. Maybe because she no longer cared what kind of impression she made on the captain. Or maybe, quite simply, she needed to let it out. Whatever the reason, the dame was broken. And there was no returning the current from where it came.

Bloodybee considered her words in silence.

“You remind me of Butterbeater” she said finally.

Valka looked at her, startled. “Who?”

“That girl who cut my fingers off” explained Bloodybee. “The girl we all made fun of, since she made it so darn easy. She had the strength and the brains, but not the spirit. Literally everybody could beat her black and blue, and she wouldn’t fight back. Even when she did attempt to stand her ground, she’d hesitate to land a serious punch. Pathetic, truly pathetic. Until that story with my fingers, that is” she smiled sheepishly. “Nobody bullied her anymore after that. And guess what? That did not make her happy” she revealed in astonishment. “Quite contrary, it sickened her. It sickened her that she had to cripple a fellow Bog Burglar to earn some respect. That nobody recognized her numerous advantages until she showed how ruthless she could be. She actually told me that” the captain shuddered at the memory. “I didn’t understand what her problem was. Why would she question the rules our tribe lives by. Why turn her back on the society now that it was finally willing to accept her. Why make such a big deal of something so normal” she made a face, as if such an attitude annoyed her even now. “I didn’t get it. But I wasn’t going to let somebody who made me go through living hell get lost in self-pity” she declared, a spark of determination flashing in her eyes. “So I told her to woman the hell up. To make people respect her for who she was. To reach out for what she really wanted, cause Thor himself knew she had the guts to achieve it. Heck, I was even ready to destroy the enemies she makes along the way. The only thing I was not ready to do was to let her potential go to waste” she stated firmly, fired up by the emotions she recalled.

Valka found herself intrigued by the story. “And... what happened then?” she asked.

Bloodybee smiled widely. “We’ve sworn sisterhood in blood and have been supporting each other ever since”

Valka stared at her in disbelief. The blood brotherhood – or blood sisterhood – was the most sacred bond that could unite two people of the same sex. Blood sisterhood meant limitless loyalty for all eternity. Sworn sisters guided one another in virtue and honor, keeping no secrets from each other and holding each other above anyone else. To take such an oath with somebody you had to trust this person with your life, be willing to lay your head for them. To take such an oath with somebody who crippled you for life was pretty darn impressing.

Meanwhile Bloodybee narrated on. “Butterbeater has since become an acknowledged ship builder. She’s the one who made Sparrowhawk and still does all the repairs. Every time I get back from a voyage I visit her and we celebrate. Until Avalanche was old enough to travel with me I’ve been leaving her with Butterbeater. We’re pretty much family. Not bad for the rocky start we had, neh?”

Valka couldn’t argue with that. “Indeed it is” she acknowledged, smiling.

Bloodybee beamed at her words. “I see the two of us going the same path” she said smugly. “I’ll cover your back when you deal with my tribe, and you will lend me your special talents if I ever need them. Whatcha think?”

Valka couldn’t help but smile. She figured they would have arguments and misunderstandings in the future, but it seemed that they were also capable of getting along. For her, that was enough.

“I’d like that very much” she replied, sincerely happy.

Bloodybee clapped her hands. “Splendid! Let us shake hands” she started to extend her hand, but stopped midway, suddenly remembering something. She picked up the bucket she had left on the floor and offered it to Valka. “On second thought, you might want to wash your hands first” she offered, smiling sheepishly.

Valka let out a laugh. Something was telling her that she has managed to make a friend and the two of them were in for a great deal of fun.

Chapter Text

Valka had a headache the size of a Bewilderbeast. She did her very best to remain absolutely still, since every slightest movement sent her brain spinning. Even her hair hurt on their whole length. Her oral cavity felt as dry as a desert, and her stomach as twisted as a labyrinth. On top of that, if she were to believe her rather amused husband, she had somehow managed to throw up and piss herself at the same time when he was putting her to bed. She couldn’t remember it to save her life.

“And the best part of it” narrated Stoick happily, “was when I tried to undress you, you started to kick and punch and yelled: ‘Paws off, you brute, I’m married!’ Hah! That was adorable!”

Valka groaned, thoroughly embarrassed. She took the solemn oath never to drink with the Bog Burglars again.

Stoick kindly fed her a slice of bread with scrambled eggs and some water, assuring that she had done great at the party. He was particularly impressed with the way she handled Bloodybee. That part, to Valka’s relief, did ring a bell. She could recall coming back from the latrine side by side with Snotlout’s mother. She remember clearly that Bloodybee hopped on the table and announced for all to her that Valka the Dragon Whisperer has shown proficiency in Viking skills, among others bending men to her will, and from then on was to be considered a friend of the Bog Burglar tribe. It was after that particular announcement that the real heavy drinking started.

Valka supposed she should be proud of herself. Vikings thought it compulsory to get drunk during feasts, which meant she performed well. Yet the achievement was overshadowed by mind-numbing pain. And frustration at seeing Stoick with absolutely no signs of hangover, in spite of him having drunk twice as much as she did.

“Don’t worry” he comforted her. “You’re a little out of practice, that’s all. You’ll do better next time”

She sincerely doubted it. No amount of praise could make up for the hell she was going through. Not now, not ever.

She didn’t tell her husband any of that, though. Talking meant moving her jaws, and that would only worsen her headache. It was not worth it.

Eventually Stoick had to leave. He left a mug of water within her reach, as well as an empty bucket – in case reaching the outhouse proved to be too much of a challenge. She barely registered those facts before turning her mind off. She had to sleep this over. To quietly wait till the alcohol has evaporated from her body. There was no getting around it.

She couldn’t tell how long her nap had taken. When she woke up, however, she was welcomed by a round, stern face, with tiny eyes and a pig-like nose.

“My mother is a secret Odin” said the owner of the face.

Valka was so shocked she momentarily forgot about her headache. “Umh, what?” she blurted.

“For the old man from yesterday” explained her guest. “He keeps some valuables in that secret storage room of his, you see. Every year she sneaks in and adds a tiny bit of gold into it. Not much, a coin or two, but still. If anybody finds out, she’ll be the laughingstock of our tribe. If you ever need her to do anything for you, threaten her to tell everybody. There’s no way that won’t work”

As the girl spoke, Valka’s sight focused and her brain started to warm up. She managed to establish that the child who disturbed her peace was Avalanche, the daughter of Bloodybee. The old man from yesterday had to be Mildew, whom Avalanche tried to rob. Everything beyond that seemed way too absurd to process – at least in Valka’s condition.

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked, confused. “And why would she do such a thing?”

She may not have known Bloodybee for long, but she was still willing to bet the Bog Burglar had no reasons whatsoever to be supporting Mildew. This just didn’t add up.

Avalanche shrugged. “She didn’t move a finger when Snotlout made me look like an idiot in front of everybody. I want to get back at her” she confessed. “Call it making things even with the two of you. As for mom, she sort of is making things even too. Though Bog Burglars really shouldn’t be doing that. We take advantage of everything and everyone and if they expect anything in return, they’re idiots”

“Wait, slow down” interrupted Valka. “Your mother is making things even with Mildew?”

Avalanche rolled her eyes. “Geez, you really don’t get it” she scowled. “None of us would’ve gone this far for a man, and certainly not one as useless as him. Mom does it, because his granddaughter asked her to. She was my father’s housekeeper once and helped raise my brother. THIS is why my mom does the thing. And, for the record: the granddaughter is the one actually earning the gold. Mom hasn’t fallen this low. Yet”

Valka could feel tiny eggs of insecurity hatching underneath her skull. The story was starting to make sense, but that might not have been a good thing after all.

“Housekeeper…” she whispered worriedly. “You mean… Diarrhea the Dirty?”

“Yup” confirmed Avalanche. “You know her?”

Valka hesitated. She knew Diarrheas the Dirty had been her husband’s lover. That Hiccup had loved her like a mother. That a heated argument with Stoick left her disfigured, which prompted her to leave Berk for good.

“No, not really” Valka muttered, choosing her words carefully. “But she was Stoick’s housekeeper too. And Hiccup’s caretaker”

“Oh, right” acknowledged Avalanche, unimpressed by her interlocutor’s apparent discomfort. “She did work for most of the warriors on this island at some point. It didn’t do her any good”

A massive understatement, if there ever was to be one.

Valka focused on reviewing the facts. She had been aware for quite some time that Rhea was Mildew’s granddaughter. The topic came up one time when they were discussing the dragon-Viking integration. Back then she worried that the old man could be holding a grudge against Stoick because of his granddaughter’s departure, but Stoick assured her it was not the case.

‘Trust me, Val’ he had said, ‘Mildew cared for Rhea about as much as he does for last year’s snow, and she returned the sentiment. The way he sees it she lost her mind and betrayed our village. So no, he is not bitter about losing her. He’s a grumpy old man and that’s all there is to it”

It was evident that he felt uncomfortable talking about Rhea, so she refrained from further questions. It wasn’t like finding out more about her husband’s former lover ranked high on her priority list anyway. The woman was gone forever. There was no need to dwell on it.

Now, however, confronted with somebody perfectly unaware of the housekeeper’s involvement with the chief, Valka felt obliged to pursue the topic. What happened to Rhea was partly her fault, so she might find some comfort in knowing the other woman is doing fine.

“How is she? Did she join your tribe?”

Avalanche shook her head. “Neh. She works for us every now and then, does some cleaning and woman skills workshops, so she calls it. Then she leaves and looks for different jobs elsewhere. You may call her our friend, but she’s not one of us”

“I see” nodded Valka. “Don’t you know if she ever considered coming back to Berk?”

If Rhea refrained from setting down, it might be because she still considered Berk her home. After all, she continued to secretly support her grandfather, even though they weren’t particularly close. That did speak volumes.

But Avalanche rebutted the theory.

“Never in her life. She says it’s for the best if everybody thinks she’s dead. That’s why we never speak of her while we’re here. So, in case anybody asked, you didn’t hear it from me”

Valka had mixed feelings about this. Bloodybee must have known that Hiccup and Snotlout adored Rhea. Must have known how hurt they were by her departure. And yet she never once mentioned to the boys that their beloved housekeeper was alive and well. This simply wasn’t right.

But then, how could Bloodybee possibly refuse the request of the woman who had cared for her son? Valka knew she wouldn’t. If this was what Rhea wanted, they had to respect her wishes. They owed her that.

“Your secrets are safe with me, Ava” assured Valka sadly. “So are Rhea’s. I understand why she doesn’t want anything more to do with us. But she could at least visit her grandfather. I’m sure he would appreciate it”

She actually doubted it, but if Rhea still seemed to care for Mildew, despite everything, there was a tiny chance that he returned the sentiment.

Avalanche snorted at the idea. “Hah! If he knew the gold was from her, he’d throw it into the sea! They hate each other!”

“And yet, she cares about him enough to support him in a way he would accept” insisted Valka. It might have been pointless to dwell on the subject, but she suddenly felt like reaching out to Avalanche. Talking to this child sparked up her motherly instincts, and she was going to put them to some good use.

“Look, Ava,” she started, “relationships in a family can be very complicated. It is perfectly normal to love and hate a person at the same time. My boys and I have our ups and downs, but we always do care about each other. Your mother loves you, and wants the best for you, even if she shows it in strange ways. You are angry at her right now, but I’m sure you still love her very much. Your father and brother too, even though they are men and annoy you. So maybe you could try and convince Rhea to at least write Mildew a letter? At least she will have tried”

The speech did nothing to change Avalanche’s mind.

“Not a chance” assured the girl smugly. “She’d rather be remembered as an egoistic pig who cut all ties with her family to search for gods know what in the big world, and probably sunk in her first storm, than a stupid lass who tried to improve her life by porking with the big guys and ended up with a child out of wedlock. And I can totally see why”

“W-wa-wait!” Valka stuttered. “Hold it! A child? I heard it right?”

“Yup. Rhea has a son” confirmed Avalanche. “That’s why she can’t be a Bog Burglar. She’d have to dump the boy with his father, and apparently, there is no such option. Not even my mom knows the whole story, but it’s the end that really matters. You get it now?”

As the girl spoke – very much in a matter of fact way – Valka felt as if all the bones in her body crumbled. Every rational brain cell she had was telling her to withdraw. To disregard the revelation. To pretend this was all a drunken dream. But she could already see cracks in the ice beneath her feet. And she knew there was no escaping the frozen water underneath.

“The boy…” she whispered in a weak voice. “How-how old is he?”

Avalanche thought about it. “Six. Maybe seven. Something like this”

‘Odin almighty!’ – roared Valka’s brain.

“How does he look like?” uttered Valka’s lips.

Avalanche shrugged. “Like a boy”

“Ava, focus!” demanded Valka, grabbing the girl’s shoulders. “What color is his hair? His eyes? Anything special?”

Avalanche freed herself in a violent squirm. “Geez, you think I’d bother remembering?” she cried, irritated. “It’s a boy, not a box of jewels! And why do you care, it’s not like you’ll ever see him!”

Valka sobered up instantly, terrified of her outburst. “Sorry, I got carried away” she blurted, her mind racing for excuses. “I just… I’d like to help her… them, somehow”

It might have been a poor justification, but Avalanche bought it.

“Neh, don’t bother” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “They get by just fine. It does get hard at times, but this kind of life is still better than one they’d have here on Berk. You get it, right?”

“Yeah… I guess”

“Good” concluded Avalanche, jumping to her feet. “Well, I will be going” she said, heading for the door. “T’was nice talking to you. And remember,” she chirped, sending Valka a wink of joyful conspiracy, “don’t tell anybody”

“Yeah” muttered Valka. “I won’t”

Then, as suddenly as she had arrived, Avalanche disappeared, under the conviction that she had equipped the chief’s wife with a solid leverage over her mother. Little did she know that the Dragon Whisperer was totally unconcerned with plotting against Bloodybee. As she lay down, staring absently into the ceiling, there was one message vibrating within her head.

Stoick had a son. She knew while he did not. And she had no idea what to do about it.

Chapter Text

Oh my gods. Oh my Odin, Frigg, and Thor.

Stoick has a son. Stoick has a son.

I know and he does not.

Stoick has a son. STOICK. HAS. A. SON.

Now, now, Valka, calm down. Think soberly. Panic won’t get you anywhere. You need to establish the facts. What is it that you know? And I mean, know for sure?

I know for sure that Stoick was romantically involved with Diarrhea the Dirty. I know for sure Diarrhea the Dirty has a son. I may safely assume her son is also Stoick’s.

I know Stoick doesn’t know. If he knew, he would have told me.

Now, what do I do? I need to think carefully.

What happens if I don't tell him?

The guilt will drive me insane.

What if I do tell him?

He will move heaven and Earth to find that boy.

What if he moves heaven and Earth to find the boy, and the boy turns out not to be his? It would wreck his heart.

What if he moves heaven and Earth to find the boy, the boy turns out to be his, but Rhea refuses to share the parental rights? It would wreck his heart even more.

What if Rhea agrees to move back to Berk with her son? Would Hiccup accept them? Would I accept them?

It was so easy to disregard Stoick's relationship with Rhea with her being long gone. But with her living here, being involved with our lives? Will I be able to look that woman in the eye, knowing she had been intimate with my husband? Will I be able to accept her son as a part of our family?

What if Rhea still harbors feelings for Stoick? What if he harbors feelings for her?

Now, now, Valka, don’t be ridiculous. The very reason Rhea ended things with Stoick was because he loved you more, even when he thought you were dead. Whoever else he might have been with was merely a substitute for you. Really, you should be thanking every deity in existence for a husband as loyal as this.

Okay. So, what do I do?

This is no small thing. There is a living child whose world I would have to turn upside down. There is a woman who has left her past behind, started from scratch, and somehow found her own path. Do I have the right to get in their way?

Did Rhea have the right not to tell Stoick he had another son?

She may have been bitter back then, but what about now? If given a chance, would she have told him?

Does she intend to tell her son?

Does it really matter? Regardless of what Rhea has or hasn’t done, your obligation is first and foremost to your family. You are Stoick's wife and owe him the truth.

But how do I tell him something like this?

More importantly, when?

It’s only a week left until Snoggletog. Stoick cannot leave. He has preparations to supervise and Bog Burglars to keep an eye on. If I tell him now, it will only distract him from his duties.

But if I wait, he will know I am hiding something. And I promised not to keep secrets from him anymore. I don’t want to betray his trust.

But neither do I want to worry him unnecessarily.

Oh, woman, you are just looking for excuses not to tell him.

No, I’m worried about him. I'm trying to be reasonable.

Then you should know there will never be a good moment to deliver these news. You might as well get it over with.

Maybe. But some moments are worse than others. This was going to be our first Snoggletog as a family. It should be a time free of worries.

Not gonna happen. You’re worried already. And the boys will spot it. And they will worry for you.

Would that really be worse than having them worry about Rhea and her son?

Now, woman, look into yourself. If you chose not to reveal the truth right away, you may be tempted not to revel it at all. You may get used to keeping the secret. This is how you deal with problems – you run away from them.

No, not anymore. I’m not that woman anymore.

Be real. All of Berk will be travelling on dragon back in a matter of years. Chances that Stoick or Hiccup would run into Rhea and her son sometime in the future are rising. If this happens, the father and both sons will be livid for not having known of each other's existence earlier. And both mothers will be at fault.

I know. I don’t want that.

Then tell Stoick.

But if I do, he will not rest until the boy is found. I don't want to hurt him. He really deserves some peace. I don’t want him going on a search this time of the year. It’s madness.

He doesn’t have to do the searching himself. He is the chief, he could delegate.

He could, but he wouldn’t. Not this. He will want to go looking for his son himself. Nobody will be able to stop him. And Rhea and the boy could be anywhere. If they travel by ship, they probably switch location all the time. Only a dragon could find them before Snoggletog.

A dragon could find them before Snoggletog...

...could I find them before Snoggletog?

I have Cloudjumper. I know they visit the Bog Isles frequently, so this is where I'd begin my search.

But what then? What if Bog Burglars don’t want to talk? What if I have to search the whole Archipelago? I’ve only got a week.

I can’t miss Snoggletog. Not this. The boys would never forgive me. I would never forgive myself.

Is it really worth it? To risk missing my first Snoggletog with my family to try and find my husband’s former lover, who might very well be determined never to see him again, and a boy who might very well not be his son at all?

Odin, Frigg and Thor, give me strength.

“Valka, you okay?”

Huh?

Startled, Valka turned to the source of disturbances in her thinking processes. It was only Gobber. Though it might as well have been a pink Night Fury. She’d have been just as surprised.

“Girl, you really look like a dragon ate you and threw you up” chuckled the man, greatly amused. “But no worries, you'll be fine by tonight. It's all part of the fun” he assured.

Valka had no idea what to say. Fortunately, Gobber was talkative by nature.

“You hungry or anything?” he asked.

“No, not really” she replied. At this point, eating anything seemed like a major indecency.

“Good” he said. “I’ll fix some soups. You just lay here and relax”

The suggestion made Valka crack a smile. Relax. What a joke.

Nonetheless, the woman pulled herself up, her eyes locating the man as he begun the preparations. For some reason watching him seemed more productive than staring at the ceiling.

First he filled a cauldron with water and placed it over the hearth – which reminded Valka they would soon have to refill the big barrel in the corner of the main room, in which they kept their water savings. Next he pulled up a board from the floor – below was a barrel in which the family stored salted meat, buried in ground for better conservation. Gobber chose a whole chicken and two yak steaks. He placed them inside the cauldron and took a sieve. Now he would have to wait for the fumes.

It was bizarre – watching him move about, preparing a meal as if nothing happened. At the same time, there was something calming about the whole scene. Gobber was so blissful, so at peace, that his positive energy seemed to be clearing the dark clouds that were floating inside Valka’s head. Consequently, she managed to put some distance between herself and the problem.

What she was watching was normality. The everyday routine of her family. The harmony she wanted to protect.

The order she was not a part of not that long ago.

She thought that Gobber moved about as if she wasn’t there. Now it occurred to her this had to be the way he moved about when she wasn’t there.

Her family had learned to cope without her. She had learned to cope without them. That didn’t mean they were any better apart than together.

A starfish can regrow an arm it had lost. A few can regrow a whole body from just one arm. Valka was just like this, an arm that got detached from the body and developed into an independent being. The corpse she had abandoned had meanwhile grown a new limb. Then, by pure miracle, they were reunited. No longer torn halves of one whole, but two separate bodies. Nonetheless, they were happy to have found each other. And chose to live on entwined, in an embrace so tight that nothing could tear them apart.

There was no changing the past, but present offered countless opportunities. Valka could hate herself for what she had done, and let her guilt weight her down. Or she could accept it and let it become a source of strength for the future.

She could use it to help others.

A chance encounter with Hiccup brought her to where she was today. Perhaps it was her turn to save somebody from the darkness.

Valka knew how it was, to feel like you had no choice but go your own way. To see no path other than voluntary exile. She knew, because she has been there. And she would still be there, if it wasn’t for her son.

Perhaps Rhea wasn’t much different than her. Perhaps the only difference was that she had kept her child.

If Valka had been pregnant when Cloudjumper took her, she would have raised the baby in the Sanctuary. She wasn’t going to kid herself into thinking otherwise.

She knew now what she had to do. She knew that she was the woman for the job. It didn’t matter if her motivation was guilt, fear, or love for her family. She would bring Rhea and her son back to Berk.

But how? She didn’t even know how Rhea looked like.

But Gobber knew.

Valka opened her mouth to pop the question, but stopped herself. This was too risky. If Gobber suspects anything, he will tell Stoick. And Valka very much preferred to keep him in the dark. She had to find a different source of information. Somebody not so close to their family.

But whom? Mildew? That’d only enrage him. Ava? Already said everything she knew. Snotlout? He’s too unpredictable. Who else was there?

The laeknar.

It was so obvious now. Rhea had stayed at the laeknar’s house between her accident and departure. This was a couple of weeks. They would know of all the guests she might have had at that time. They might even have known if she was pregnant. Talking to them could help Valka confirm or exclude Stoick as the father of Rhea’s son (she did not suspect there could have been another man involved, but she preferred to be extra sure).

With a plan formed in her head, Valka got up.

“I’m going to get some fresh air, Gobber” she told her friend.

“Sure thing” he responded. “Just put on your furs. It’s quite chilly out there”

Valka nodded. It would have been a shame if she appeared in public wearing just a tunic and leggings. A chief’s wife had to be presentable. Besides, quality attire could drive the attention away from her face, which she bet still showed signs of last night’s drinking.

First she put on her boots. Then tied a layer of cloth over her waist – particularly useful in cold climate, as it felt like a woolen blanket over her legs. Next she threw a furry coat over her tunic. On top of that came her usual armor – it was modified not long ago and now featured click-in holsters on the back, so she wouldn’t have to carry her staff all the time. Finally she strapped the armbands on. Now she looked presentable enough to venture outside. And felt confident enough to carry out the mission with which she set off.

Hopefully she won’t run into Stoick along the way.

As she stepped outside she was welcomed by the chilly air and a warm aura. A familiar presence that never failed to improve her mood. The powerful four-winged dragon, who appeared so proud and dignified, but dotted on her like a loving brother.

It was comforting, having him around.

Valka might have had problems interpreting signals sent by humans, but she and Cloudjumper understood each other perfectly. His immediate reaction at seeing her was happiness. Right afterwards came the questioning look, overshadowed by concern for her health. Closely followed by realization. The dragon figured that the source of his human’s problems was not her liver. Not the primary source, at least. Having established that, he purred comfortingly, nearing his head to her to assure her of his support. She smiled as she rubbed his chin.

He was such a dear, that Cloudjumper. Perhaps even more so now that they spent more time apart. It couldn’t be helped – she now resided in a nest too small for him to access. He was happy that she had found her family, of course, but at the same time this new housing arrangement irked him. He tried not to show it, so not to upset his wingless sister, but she saw right through him. He envied Toothless, whose smaller size allowed him to sleep beside his human. He often peaked into the windows. At times he even shot suspicious glances at Stoick.

It was to be expected, of course. A lot has changed in the last couple of weeks. New challenges were already appearing on the horizon. So much was going on it was perfectly normal to feel frustrated. To forget, even if only briefly, that you had your special place in somebody’s heart. Dragons and humans were quite similar in this respect.

Fortunately, this particular human and this particular dragon knew they could always count on each other. Be it at Berk, Sanctuary, open sea, or a foreign land far, far away. No matter what mayhem, crisis or disaster they’ll have to face, they will do so as brother and sister. And nothing could convince them otherwise.

Reassured by the sheer wonder of their bond, Valka addressed her comrade.

“Come” she told him gently. “We’re going to pay the laeknir a visit”

The dragon responded with a nod. It cheered him up, knowing that Valka had a plan.

The Dragon Whisperer and the Stormcutter made their through the village. The distance was short, so there was no need to fly. Not to mention flying was sure to attract attention. Possibly that of Bog Burglars seeking to fetch a ride. And Valka really had more pressing matters to attend to.

Fortunately the walk to the laeknars’ house was accomplished without distractions. Valka knocked at the door. A moment later it opened and through it came Rusty.

“Lady Valka!” he smiled at her. “How can I help you?”

“Is Blight home?” asked Valka. The primary laeknir was her preferred source of information, as she must have been Rhea’s main caretaker. And one more likely to notice signs of pregnancy.

“No, she’s at Gothi's” said Rusty. “But perhaps I could help you. Please, do come in”

He stepped aside, gesturing for his guest to come inside.

“Thank you” said Valka. She figured she might try questioning the young man. Worst case scenario, she’ll just wait for his aunt to return.

The first thing she noticed on entering the house was the Speed Stinger, hanging from a ceiling pillar by the tail. It was the same Speed Stinger she had brought from the Sanctuary a couple weeks prior, the one she had used to numb Hiccup. A female whom she named Night.

A piece of cloth was wrapped around the dragon’s head, blocking the eyes and ear-holes.

“I’m afraid I can’t yet offer you any ground-breaking discoveries regarding Speed Stinger venom” said Rusty, noticing where the woman’s attention fell. “I'm still testing its effects on sheep. But I suppose you will be pleased to know Night and I have grown quite close” he revealed, stepping closer to the slumbering dragon and beaming with pride.

“I’ve been taking her on long walks in the moonlight, telling her about the flora and fauna. I think she likes being talked to. And she actually remembers what I say. The other night we were picking mushrooms, and when I said I wished we’d find a boletus, she raced off and a few seconds later came back with one. I’d only shown her an illustration of one, and she recognized it. This was incredible” the young man chuckled. “I’d never think dragons could be this amazing” he said, regarding the slumbering Speed Stinger with affection.

Valka smiled to herself, her heart soaring. That was indeed good news.

Night was originally placed in the laeknirs’ house for Hiccup’s sake – in case he had to be paralyzed again – and the medical team was not exactly pleased with the arrangement. Who could blame them – the general population was only beginning to consider the possibility of dragons amounting to something more than fire and fangs. Later, as Hiccup recovered, he got Blight and Rusty interested in the Speed Stinger venom and its potential as tranquilizer. Thus they decided to keep Night. Valka worried they might only view the flightless dragon as a source of venom to experiment on – and they probably did, at the very beginning – but it appeared that things were heading in the right direction.

It was truly uplifting, seeing that not everything around her was messed up.

“I’m happy for you” she told Rusty with genuine joy. “You’re restoring my hope in humanity”

Rusty chuckled. “That’s a lot of praise for something as simple as making a friend” he said, although his face was radiating with pride. “Besides, I’m merely reaping the fruit of your labor. Your and your son’s. You two are the heroes, I’m but your humble servant” he bowed, still smiling.

Valka figured he was trying to elicit some more praise from her, but frankly, she didn’t mind. Considering the intensity of her recent interactions, a little exaggerated politeness seemed like a nice change.

“There are no servants in our Academy, Rusty” she told him. “Only scales of various sizes. All of which are needed to make the skin of our village skin impenetrable and keep the fire of hope alight”

The young man nodded, pleased, yet resolute. “Wise words, Lady Valka” he acknowledged. “You really are the right person in the right place”

This time, he didn’t sound casual. He wasn’t joking. These words were genuine.

It meant the world to Valka, to hear such praise from somebody outside her inner circle.

“Thank you” she said, her gratitude sincere.

He shook his head, but his expression remained good-natured. “No, Lady Valka – thank YOU”

With that positive gesture, the formalities were finished.

“Please, have a sit” Rusty gestured towards the table and advanced towards the hearth. “Would you like some milk? I just boiled some”

“Yes, please” said Valka, sitting down.

“With honey and butter?”

“Yes, please”

She watched as the young laeknir prepared the drinks. He poured warm milk into two mugs, mixed in the extra ingredients, and offered one to his guest. Valka took a sip. The drink tasted warming and refreshing at the same time.

“So,” started Rusty, “what can I do for you?”

Valka regretted having to destroy the mood, but she did come to this house with a specific goal and was going to pursue it. She looked up at her host, deciding to start with the question she deemed the safest.

“Rusty, did you know Diarrhea the Dirty?”

Rusty gaped at her, startled. He froze momentarily, and in the next instance winced and looked aside. It appeared that he was trying to hide his discomfort, but without much success.

“I... can’t say that I did” he muttered, avoiding Valka’s gaze. “I mean, she and Decay used to be the best of friends. I sort of just tagged along”

Valka figured this was good news, since the young laeknir will be able to provide her with reliable information. Judging by his reaction, however, she would have to tread very carefully. She didn’t want to hurt him if it could be avoided.

“I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable” she told him gently. “It’s just that she was an important figure in Hiccup's life, and I don't know anything about her. I didn’t want to ask Hiccup or Stoick, since it may be hard for them. If you could help me, I would greatly appreciate it. But it’s okay if you can’t”

Rusty shook his head. “It’s okay. I can talk” he straightened his back, ran his hand over his face, and met his guest’s eyes with relative calmness. “What would you like to know?”

Valka hesitated, but the need for information out-weighted her concerns for Rusty’s inner peace. “How did she look like?”

The young laeknir sighed. “She had...” he started and immediately corrected himself. “She HAS dark brown hair, thick and curly like sheep wool. Her eyes are like two pieces of amber... I mean, her one remaining eye is like a piece of amber. And her one remaining eyebrow is quite shaggy for a woman. She has a strong, rectangular jaw. The rest of her too seems rectangular. She's not a particularly big woman, but by no mean a walking stick. Just the solid, hard-working type”

As he dwelled into details of Rhea’s appearance, he transformed into a different man. Happy, radiant, perhaps even more so than he usually was. As if the description he produced was a magic spell, his personal lucky charm. And maybe it was indeed.

“You remember her rather well” remarked Valka, impressed.

The young man smiled sheepishly. “I’ve always had an exceptionally good memory. It helps during the laeknir training”

Not only that, thought Valka. Rusty refrained from describing Rhea in past tense. As if he refused to accept that she may be gone for good. As if that could help her.

But then, he apparently was her best friend’s little brother. Rhea probably babysat him as much as Decay did. He might even have treated her as an additional older sister. He certainly did appear to have cared about her more than he wanted to admit.

Still, this was none of Valka’s concern. What mattered was that she could now paint a pretty detailed picture of Rhea in her mind. She even tried picturing Hiccup with dark, curly hair, and amber-like eyes. Seemed like a good guess as to how Stoick and Rhea's son looked like.

“I see” she acknowledged and drunk a bit of milk before moving forward with the interview. “Where you here the night of Rhea’s accident?”

Rusty shifted in his seat.

“Yes...” he admitted reluctantly. “I remember it so well. The chief burst in, holding Rhea. He was so scarred, terrified, so much not like him. And she had such horrible blisters. And I... I threw up and fainted. My aunt treated her herself” he looked aside, embarrassed. “I wasn’t really involved with the treatment after that. I couldn’t”

His voice broke and his eyes shut tightly.

Valka hesitated and reached out to hold his hand.

“It must have been hard for you” she said gently. “Seeing somebody you know in such condition”

“Yes” he whispered, somewhat calmer. “I felt so helpless”

Valka decided to keep the questions coming, so to leave him no time for self-pity.

“How long did Rhea stay with you?”

“Six weeks. Though she was unconscious for the first three. And when she left, she left for good”

“While she was here, did anybody visit her?”

“The chief came with Hiccup once, but Rhea wasn't in the mood to see them. Decay came a couple of times, but Rhea wouldn't talk to her, either. Even Mildew came by once, if only to verbally abuse her. And Gobber, he did appear once or twice. That's all, I guess”

Valka arranged the information in her head, planning her next move. This seemed like a good moment to inquire about potential love interests.

“Was she... involved with anybody?”

Rusty shook his head. “I doubt it. She was always working. Nobody ever caught her in the old Woodpecker's barn... umh, I mean, if she had a suitor or something, Decay would have known. You could try talking to her, but I doubt she’d tell you anything more than this”

“I see” nodded Valka. Rusty seemed pretty certain of what he revealed. It seemed that Stoick and Rhea did a good job keeping their affair a secret. Also, that there were no other candidates for the baby daddy title.

Unless, of course, Rhea got pregnant AFTER her departure from Berk. Not likely, but still probable.

Valka drunk a bit of her milk, deliberating on further questions to ask. She felt bad about milking Rusty for information he obviously was uncomfortable remembering, but it was too good an opportunity to pass.

“Do you remember, by any chance, how Rhea’s ship looked like?”

Rusty had to think about it. “Yes… It was a trader’s ship. I wouldn’t exactly call it a knarr, it wasn’t that long, but seemed similar enough. Single mast, high rails, deep hull. And the option of pitching a cape over the deck. Overall a nice, sturdy ship, for one so small. But definitely not one I would entrust to a beginner”

“I mean, Rhea didn’t know a thing about sailing. She had never left Berk” he revealed, his voice becoming agitated. “When she asked the chief for a ship, we thought she had lost her mind. It happens with head injuries, you know. When Mildew found out, he was livid. He said that sailing wasn’t something she could learn from books, that she was insane if she thought otherwise. I can’t say I wasn’t worried about her, myself. I mean, she was no more a warrior than she was a sailor. An easy target for pirates. We tried to talk her out of this, but she was stubborn. She preferred to take her chances with the sea than remain on the island”

He took a big gulp from his mug and sighed heavily. The drink seemed to have tempered the anxiety within, for when he spoke next, it was in a resigned tone.

“Since there was no talking her out of this, we all helped her prepare the best we could. Scub prepared skins and dried meat. Decay made a sleeping bag and some warm clothes. Gobber offered stories of his adventures at the sea. I’ve read her the sailing manual, over and over again, until she knew it by heart. Rules for maneuvers. Names and functions of ship components. Meteorological phenomena. Physics. All the theory of sailing, from dusk till dawn, until the very last day. All then, just like this, she left. And didn’t look back even once”

By this point, Rusty looked as if all the life had drained out of him.

“My aunt guessed that this was something Rhea needed to do to fully recover” he added in a weak whisper. “That she just had to put some distance between herself and the painful memories to be able to feel safe again. I suppose she did have a point. But I still wish Rhea had sought comfort among us, not in the sea”

Having said that he sighed wearily. As if this was the end of all ends.

For a moment, Valka was silent. Watching this young man, getting so lost in his narration, vibrating with emotions, and losing all vitality so suddenly, was an intense experience. He was like a dragon, a gentle dragon who normally kept out of harm’s way, but sprung into battle when called. And used all of his powers in one assault, remembering only upon collapsing that there was a limit to the fire he could produce.

Valka felt like the most cruel person on Earth, knowing this was all her doing. It even crossed her mind to tell him that Rhea was, in fact, alive. Alas, this was not the right time. If everything goes well, she will have brought Rhea back before Snoggletog. She definitely had to bring Rhea back before Snoggletog. Not just so Stoick could meet his son. No, she had to do this for Rusty, Decay, Scub, and other people who still held concerns for Rhea. That woman was loved. Maybe not by her son’s father, but by quite a lot of people. And Valka was going to make her aware of it.

Reassured in her determination, the Dragon Whisperer decided to tackle one more subject. Partly to keep Rusty occupied, partly because it did perk her interest.

“I’ve heard she didn’t exactly get along with her grandfather” she remarked, trying to sound casual.

Rusty shook his head. “That’s a massive understatement. She hated his guts. But it’s no wonder, given he pretty much ignored her existence until she was old enough to clean his house. And even then he treated her like dirt. Bloody old man. I’m sorry, but it’s true”

To hear such crude words spoken by such a good-natured person was rather concerning.

“Good gods, what did she ever do to make him hate her so?” asked Valka worriedly.

Rusty was puzzled. “You don’t know?”

“I’m afraid not”

“Right. You wouldn’t have asked otherwise” he acknowledged. “You see, Mildew had a son. His name was Ash. He died in a dragon raid at the age of 17”

“I’m sorry” said Valka.

“At that point,” continued Rusty, “Ash was engaged to a girl named Tear. Their relationship was official, the handsal had been made, the one thing they didn’t get to have was the ceremony itself. When it turned out that Tear was with a child, nobody doubted that Ash had been the father. Yet, Mildew refused to have anything to do with her. He had the right to acknowledge Rhea on behalf of his son, he pretty much was expected to, and he didn’t” the young laeknir looked at his guest sadly. “Can you imagine that? Rejecting the only grandchild you’d ever have? I sure as hell can’t”

Valka was out of words. She wasn’t fond of Mildew, but she’d never think his malice extended quite this far. “Did he think that his son’s fiancée had been unfaithful?” she guessed.

“I don’t know. Maybe” said Rusty. “Mildew’s son was said to have had fair hair and blue eyes. Rhea looked nothing like him, she took after her mother. Mildew might have had a problem with that. Or with her being a girl. Or he plain out hated the mother. I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know. It wouldn’t change anything” he said, resigned.

“This really is sad” said Valka, since she couldn’t come up with anything more elaborate.

“Yeah” agreed Rusty. He finished his milk and made a bitter grin. “You know what’s really crazy about this? Mildew paid for Rhea’s ship”

Valka gaped at him, stunned. “What? But that ship was a gift from Stoick” she said, confused.

“That’s a simplification” explained Rusty. “Pretty popular, since nobody here likes Mildew much. But the truth is, they had struck a deal. The chief was to oversee the preparations, and Mildew cover the expenses. Under the condition that Rhea would be kept in the dark about his involvement. As if that one generous gesture could make up for a lifetime of neglect”

For a split second, Rusty’s features were overtaken by anger. Maybe because of Mildew’s treatment of Rhea. Maybe because Rhea’s treatment of him. Or maybe his own hopelessness against the stubborn pride of them both.

“I really of prefer to think of that ship as a gift from the chief” he confessed. “The chief, he cared about Rhea. When he brought her in, he hadn’t left until my aunt was done treating her. When she was recovering, he asked if she needed anything. And that look on his face. He obviously blamed himself, even though it was an accident”

For a moment Valka froze, but Rusty failed to notice and spoke on.

“I suppose Rhea tripped over a toy that Hiccup had left on the floor. Or the chief knocked over his mug and she was in too much hurry to clean it. Whatever it was, he felt responsible. And I’m sure he did intend to give Rhea whatever she asked for, even at the cost of his reputation. I mean, a chief giving in to the whims of his servant? Gifting her a whole ship? That is unheard of. But Stoick, he didn’t care. His people mean more to him than his reputation. Truly, a remarkable man. Not one like Mildew, who didn’t even bat an eyelid when his own granddaughter sailed into the unknown with the intention of never returning”

Rusty let out the last seething breath, and looked aside with a haunted look on his face.

“All her life he never once showed her he cared. And the one thing he’s ever given her was the ship of which she left us for good”

For a good moment Valka was silent, trying to deal with shock of it all. This story was a real sad one. And rich with irony. Granddaughter hiring a Bog Burglar to secretly support the grandfather. Grandfather buying the granddaughter a ship and letting somebody else take the credit. All acquaintances insisting the two hated each other’s guts and neither would knowingly accept any help from the other.

In some sick way, Rhea did take after Mildew.

Silently, the Dragon Whisperer finished her milk. There was nothing more she needed to know. And she didn’t really feel like continuing this investigation. It really was a depressing experience.

At that moment, the door opened and the primary laeknir came in.

“Oh, Lady Valka. I thought that dragon was in front of our house because of you” she remarked, closing the door behind herself before turning to the guest with kind concern. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, pretty much” confirmed Valka, standing up. She briefly considered leaving, as Rusty had told her pretty much everything, but there was something else – something he had no way of knowing, but his master was sure to have noticed. Thus Valka approached the older woman. “Blight, can we talk in private? It’s about women’s matters”

She very much preferred to keep Rusty out of this. The lad has had enough bitter memories for one day.

“Why, of course. Please, follow me” Blight gestured towards the patients’ rooms, but Rusty was already getting up.

“You can talk here. I was leaving anyway” he said and headed for the door. Before he left, he sent his guest one last smile. “It was nice talking to you, Lady Valka”

“Likewise, Rusty” she replied. “Thank you for everything”

The young man nodded and disappeared behind the door. The two women were left alone.

“So,” started Blight, “what can I do for you?”

Valka decided to get straight to business.

“Blight, you treated Diarrhea the Dirty after she fell to the hearth in our house, right?”

The question erased the smile off the older woman’s face. “Why, yes, I did” she uttered, surprised.

“And she stayed under your roof for about six weeks, is that right?” Valka asked on, locking her eyes with the laeknir’s.

“Yes, six weeks exactly…”

“In the time she spent here,” Valka pushed on, determined, “did she have a bleed?”

Blight gaped at her, bewildered. “Why would you ask that?” she uttered worriedly.

A non-answer. That spoke volumes.

“I have travelled a lot with Cloudjumper” said Valka firmly. “I remember passing a trader's ship steered by a one-eyed woman. There was a young boy with her. If that woman was Rhea, then the reason she had left could have been that she was with a child and didn’t want anybody to know. I just wanted to confirm my suspicions”

It was a lie she had thought up on the way to the laeknar’s house. Though it might as well have been true. She might very well have run into Rhea at some point, and forgotten all about it afterwards.

Blight looked nervous. She probably sensed that the chief’s wife was not being entirely honest – for why would she remember a random trader? – but those suspicions were to remain unvoiced, signaled only by the facial expression. Very much like the answer Valka had expected.

“I am sorry, Lady Valka,” said Blight carefully, “but I am bound by professional confidentiality. I will not reveal my patients' secrets. Not even to you”

Valka nodded. The laeknir’s expression was enough for an answer. She had known about Rhea’s pregnancy. She might even have known who the father was. She certainly must have had some suspicions, at least. And she never told anybody. Not even Rusty.

For some reason, it made Valka furious. Rusty and Decay were Blight’s nephew and niece. All these years the primary laeknir had been deceiving her family. Deceiving her chief. If Stoick had known of Rhea’s pregnancy, he never would have let her go.

He might even have married her.

As sudden as it had ignited, Valka’s anger cools down. Blight had done her a favor, she realizes. Preserved her family for her.

No. Not for her. The one person the laeknir had meant to help was her Rhea. She was the patient. It was her body, her pregnancy, and her life. It didn’t matter what anybody else wanted. Not Rusty, who was still quite innocent and had a training to complete. Not Mildew, who outright rejected her. Not Stoick, who owned the whole island and was respected by all. And certainly not Valka, who wasn’t even there.

Acknowledging this, the Dragon Whisperer nods. “I see” she says calmly. “Thank you, Blight”

With these words she exits the house. Her research here is done. She knows Rhea was pregnant at the time she left Berk. The child had to be Stoick’s.

And that meant some serious last-minute preparations for Snoggletog.

Valka extended her hand, sensing Cloudjumper’s head nearing. The dragon’s thoughts were so intense they seemed to be sinking into her skin, creating a sensation similar to that of a loving hug. Valka turned to him, embracing his muzzle, pressing her face into it. Cloudjumper was ready to assist her in the quest, even though he didn’t know what it was about. She doubted she could find a way to make him understand, even given their deep connection. Human affairs were just so complicated, so abstract from the point of view of dragons.

But then, Cloudjumper was an exceptionally smart dragon. He deserved an attempt at explanation at very least. Thus – having looked around and established that nobody was within hearing range – Valka took a deep breath, looked her comrade in the eyes, and did her best to organize her thoughts into a coherent message.

My mate had mated with another female after you took me under your wing. That other female has had a cub. My mate doesn’t know. I want to find that female and her cub and bring them home.

She wasn’t sure if she said these words, if she just moved her lips, or if all of that was communicated through her thoughts alone. Whatever the medium, Cloudjumper’s eyes shone with understanding.

Okay, Beautiful Soul. I’m here for you.

Valka allows herself a weak smile. It felt good, having a confidante. But she wasn’t going to delude herself into thinking Cloudjumper could save her from the wrath of her family.

She would have to tell Stoick and Hiccup she was leaving for a couple of days. They were not going to be happy about this, especially since she won’t be able to give them a damn good reason why she was doing this. There was bound to be an argument, a truly epic one that would make her feel like the worst bag of scum ever. She was certainly not looking forward to that.

They will understand soon enough, she told herself. When she brings Rhea and her son home, they will understand. Which won't make her absence any less painful.

Cloudjumper sends a nervous vibe before looking up. Valka turns to the same direction, spotting the approaching rider just before he calls her name. It is Stoick, riding Thornado. With Avalanche strapped to his chest.

The sight makes Valka forget her concerns for a moment.

Thornado landed. Stoick jumped off, radiant. But the joy at seeing his wife weakened a bit when he realized where she was standing. “You’ve been at the laeknar’s?” he asked her. “Are you feeling well?”

Valka hesitated. “I… not exactly” she admitted. “But don’t worry. I am getting better”

This seemed like a safe answer. And one Stoick deemed satisfactory.

“That’s good to hear” he said, relieved. “We could use your help at the Academy. If you’re feeling good enough” he added kindly.

He was such a dear, that Stoick. Unlike the passenger he happened to be bound to.

“You totally have to come!” Avalanche exclaimed, throwing her arms into the air, ruffling Stoick’s beard in the process. “We’re having a blast!”

From where she was held in place, Avalanche could not see the scolding gaze Stoick gave her, nor that he put his hands on his hips.

“I see” said Valka, amused.

Avalanche’s back was pressed against Stoick’s chest. The girl was held in place by a couple of leather straps. The chief, who could effortlessly lift his son with one hand, did not seem bothered by the extra weight – only by the excitement she displayed. The two of them looked surprisingly cute together. Like a father and a baby.

Which reminded Valka that her husband was a father to a son younger than Avalanche.

She cast these thoughts aside and focused on the people in front of her.

“So, how did… THIS happen?” Valka inquired, gesturing to the entire form of her husband and his passenger.

“Well,” started Avalanche, “mom wanted to fly the Thunderdrum, but the chief wouldn’t let her. Then I wanted to fly with Hiccup, but Snotlout wanted me to fly with him, but I told him to go suck rocks. Then Hiccup said I could go fly with the chief, my mom with Snotlout, and my dad with Hiccup. Then Snotlout said they have a contest, and whoever makes his passenger throw up first wins. Hiccup won, so now Snotlout is pissed, mom and dad are both puking further than they can see, and the chief and I are enjoying themselves. Right, chief?”

“That about sums it up” said Stoick, not at all amused.

Valka nodded in understanding. It seemed that her son had found himself between the hammer and the anvil. He couldn’t take Avalanche for a ride, because he didn’t want to start a fight with Snotlout. Forcing the girl to ride with her brother was out of question, as Hiccup was not the type to impose his will on others, neither was Avalanche the kind of person who takes no for an answer. Also, Ava most probably picked Hiccup specifically to annoy Snotlout, to get back at him for the day before. She would not have been okay with flying with just anybody who wasn’t her brother – it had to be somebody superior to him.

Since it couldn’t be Hiccup, it had to be Stoick.

Under normal circumstances, Stoick would never have allowed a Bog Burglar anywhere near Thornado. Avalanche, however, has not yet had a rite of passage, so it could be argued she wasn’t a real Bog Burglar just yet. This was probably the point Hiccup made to convince his father to take her for a ride. After all, a powerful chief should have no problems handling a child. Moreover, such a ride was a chance to impress upon her the majesty of Berk. And possibly annoy Bloodybee, who could very well disapprove of her daughter being – de facto – rewarded for incompetence.

Considering all this, Valka was rather impressed with her son. Hiccup had managed to find a solution that suited everybody and prevented an open fight. That boy really was clever. And a skilled diplomat. One heir to be proud of.

On the side note, Stoick also deserved some prize. Not only for looking after Ava.

“So, you allowed Bloodybee’s crew into the Academy?” Valka inquired, intrigued by her husband’s decision.

“Aye. As spectators. They can stare at our oysters, but we’re not gonna show them how to get the pearls out” he said, winking.

Avalanche frowned. “Oysters? We all know what oysters look like. Pearls too. Show us something we don’t know”

The chief and his wife chuckled as they exchanged meaningful glances. The child failed to spot the true meaning behind Stoick’s words. He was fine with the guests watching dragon riders in action, but no actual teaching would be taking place just yet. Information will be disclosed gradually, in small portions, until more specific arrangements are made on the chief level. That way the Bog Burglars won’t feel mistreated by their allies and the Hooligans will maintain a considerable advantage for the future. Better blissful than bloody, as Stoick put it.

Avalanche was not bothered for long. Her face brightened as she suddenly remembered who she was facing and what it meant.

“Hey,” she addressed Valka, “now that you’re here, how bout you show us some tricks? We’ve all been waiting for it”

Valka smiled to herself. A request she was capable of fulfilling. A task she knew she would excel at. Yeah, she would very much enjoy this.

Besides, her son and husband have already scored some points today. She couldn’t remain far behind.

(…)

The rest of the day flew by without any disturbing thoughts.

Valka’s students gave Bloodybee’s crew a tour of Berk on dragon back. Then – once the “newbies” were safely back on solid ground – the experts showed them what they were capable of.

Apart from Stoick – who had no intention of goofing off – and Fishlegs – who “kindly volunteered” to take Bloodybee on board and let her see the performance from a certain height in stability – the whole team displayed their skills to the extreme.

Valka jumped from dragon to dragon as if they were pillows scattered on the floor, not powerful beasts flying at full speed so high they could touch the clouds. Even wild dragons instinctively knew what she expected from them and played along. She figured she owed their cooperation to Cloudjumper, whose dignity and majesty inspired respect and obedience of the more common breeds. As his chosen human, she was special by association. Yet, to the ignorant Bog Burglars, it must have looked like she could impose her will on dragons. This was the effect Stoick hoped to achieve – to make sure their allied tribes acknowledged that the Dragon Rider of Berk were and would forever remain the best in what they do.

Even without Valka, the young riders were putting on quite a show. The twins were mostly loud and chaotic, which was to be expected. Astrid was already efficient in balancing on top of Stormfly – standing on her arms and even doing somersaults, showing absolutely no fear of falling down. That girl trusted her dragon and had confidence in her own body. Valka was impressed with the progress these two have made. Snotlout, on the other hand, called his friend a show off and made Hookfang start a series of extreme spins. Judging by the boy’s screams, the dragon made it his personal mission to make him throw up. As a finishing touch, the Monstrous Nightmare dove into the sea, and when he emerged, it turned out Snotlout had a fish in his mouth. Everybody was amused. Snotlout later insisted Hookfang had done everything in accordance with his instructions, and the audience kindly refrained from contradicting the claim. They did snicker behind the boy’s back, though.

Still, it was Hiccup and Toothless who aced in the performance, showing astounding aerial maneuvers. They easily navigated through a maze of sea stacks at full speed. Hiccup jumped over rocks as Toothless flew beneath. At one point the boy jumped off his dragon, and the dragon dove after him, catching him in an appropriate moment. Both of them were happy beyond reason, embracing the experience. The sight made Valka’s heart soar. Her son might have been permanently crippled on the land, but blossomed in the air. In his own words, he felt the safest when on top of Toothless, and it showed. Valka was infinitely proud of all her students, but Hiccup was the one she vested most of her hopes in. If there was a way for dragons and humans to coexist in peace, he would be the one to find it, implement it, and guard it with his life.

Chapter Text

Amid the cheering, chatter, and back-patting that followed the aerial show, Valka managed to keep her worries firmly cornered in the back of her head. Unfortunately, the joyful atmosphere had to wear down at some point. Performers and spectators retreated to their homes, ships, and caves. Bloodybee had calmed her stomach down enough to suggest a feast. Spitelout, who had recovered equally fast, claimed he’d obtain some fresh meat before sunset. Soon enough both lovers headed to the forest, accompanied by entourages of crewmates and clansmen, eager to test their skills in old-fashioned hunting. Quite a few people from both tribes headed for the Mead Hall, to play some games and exchange stories over a cup of mead. The Haddock family opted to retrieve to their own home, and home-made dinner, courtesy of Gobber.

It was also courtesy of Gobber that the facts Valka had managed to swipe under the rug of sub-consciousness were blown back to her consciousness. You see, the blacksmith expressed his relief at seeing how much the Dragon Whisperer’s condition had improved since he last saw her.

“Really, Valka” he said. “I haven’t seen you this sick since you were pregnant with Hiccup”

The woman forced herself to grin, though anxiety was beginning to rub itself against her stomach.

“Well, it was a nasty hangover” she admitted, mentally begging all deities she could think of to let the discussion end here, while simultaneously searching for a replacement topic. If the men ask her about the trip to the laeknar’s, she’ll be done for.

Then, God’s be blessed, Hiccup spoke up.

“Umh, guys?”

The three adults looked at him (Valka with particular attention). The boy looked troubled.

“You aren’t,” he mumbled cautiously, “by any chance, thinking of having a second child?”

Valka caught her breath. Stoick’s eyebrows went up. They glanced at each other. Awkward silence grew between them.

Valka licked her suddenly dry lips, making the fast decision to speak up. “Well… we haven’t really talked about it” she admitted.

Hiccup became agitated.

“Then please, seriously, don’t do this to me” he begged. “I very much enjoy my quiet, cozy loft, without a screaming infant and the stench of poop”

To this, Gobber chuckled. “Oh, you say that, but I’m sure you’d love him. Or her. Or them”

Hiccup was utterly frightened by the possibility.

“Don’t even joke like that” he scolded. “One set of twins is enough for this island”

“Couldn’t agree more” remarked Stoick tiredly. He was certain that Ruff and Tuff will continue to give him headaches until he retires.

“Don’t worry, Hiccup” Valka told her son calmingly. “Women my age don’t get pregnant just like this”

The declaration amused Gobber greatly. “It’s exactly this kind of thinking that gets women your age pregnant” he snickered.

“Alright, point taken” sighed the woman. “We’re going to be careful”

Hiccup didn’t bother to hide his relief.

“Thank you” he said.

“But you know,” his mother added in a loving tone, “I think you would make a wonderful big brother”

The boy smiled, flattered.

“That’s what Avalanche said today” he revealed. “She said she would disown Snotlout and make me her brother. But I’m sure she said that to get on his nerves”

To this, Stoick snorted. “As if she ever opened her mouth in his presence for any other reason” he said, partially amused and partially exasperated.

“Neh,” Gobber challenged, “this is just her way of getting Snotlout to show her he cares”

“You’re giving her too much credit, Gobber” stated Stoick.

As the men bickered, Valka breathed a sigh of relief. She knew now that the wishes of her son were in tune with her own. To actually raise a child might have been tempting, but she had to be reasonable about it. Even if she were younger, now was simply not the right time to try for children. She could not afford to let a pregnancy prevent her from flying, from training the new riders and orchestrating the integration of dragons into the tribe. Also, if she were to perish in the upcoming war, yet another of her children would have to grow up without a mother. No, she could not risk that.

However, looking after a child who had already been born was a different matter.

Hiccup said he didn’t want babies in the house. This was understandable. Thankfully, his half-brother was no longer a baby, so he shouldn't come in the way of Hiccup's sleeping comfort. Even more so they probably won’t have to share a room that often. So maybe Valka’s son would be more accepting of such an addiction to the family? Or maybe not? After all, the other boy only shared one parent with Hiccup. And a proof of what his father and caretaker had been doing behind his back. That may be hard to process. Then again, Valka had betrayed Hiccup way worse than Stoick did, and he still forgave her.

Poor boy just had bad luck with parental figures.

Valka wished she could prepare him for the arrival of his half-brother. Alas, she could not reveal what she knew. Were there other means of reducing his shock? Being an only child herself, she couldn’t even discuss sibling dynamics.

Then, it hit her: there was a person sitting at this very table who had a younger brother shoved into his life.

Stoick did have an experience similar to that she was going to inflict upon their son.

Gods be blessed.

“Hiccup,” she spoke up in a sudden moment of inspiration, “have you ever heard how your father and Spitelout became brothers?”

The boy nodded. “Umh. His father married Spitelout’s mother. But that didn’t change anything between dad and Spitelout”

“Right it didn’t” confirmed the chief. “Spitelout may have become my father’s stepson, but that didn’t make him my brother”

“You still named him your second-in-command” Gobber pointed out. “And next-in-line right after Hiccup”

Stoick sighed. “That I did” he admitted reluctantly. “With the dragon war going on, I didn't really have a choice. Spitelout may be hard to put up with, but I know I can trust him when it really matters. He is a capable warrior, if nothing else” having said so, the chief took a sip from his mug. Then, after a brief moment of hesitation, added: “And my father’s protégée”

“And your step-brother” added Valka.

“And my step-brother” agreed Stoick in resignation. “Despite everything”

The chief sounded as if he wasn’t sure what his feelings were. Most likely he wasn’t entirely happy about the attention his father had dedicated to Spitelout, but at the same time couldn’t hold it against him. There was jealousy, territoriality, fear, remorse. A mixture of too many emotions for the chief to identify properly.

Valka remembered her husband only ever spoke briefly of his family. His father and step-mother weren't very open, either. Their late spouses were heroes, and that was all there was to it. Spitelout’s father had died on a quest for the Nest when Spitelout was 6. Stoick’s father felt responsible and has since looked after Spitelout. Four years later, when Stoick was 15, his mother perished in a dragon raid. A year after that his father married Spitelout’s mother. Some said the old chief cared for the boy more than he did for the widow. Even if his own son was a model Viking, it never hurt to have an extra heir. Stoick must have felt threatened by Spitelout at some point. And struggled with pretending he wasn’t. For a true chief shows no weakness, and no true son of the chief should feel threatened by a child who hadn’t even been formally adopted into the family.

Feeling a rush of compassion, Valka reached and touched her husbands hand. She smiled at him. He too offered her a smile.

It was a perfect moment.

(...)

Afterwards the evening progressed calmly. The four of them have finished their meal, washed the dishes and their hands. Hiccup and Toothless went upstairs to their loft. Gobber went home. Stoick and Valka checked on their respective dragons, who slept outside. The chief then relaxed while carving a piece of wood. His wife racked her brains, trying to decide if there was anything else she needed to do. Tomorrow she would b leaving. Today she had to think on what she would say. Organize her thoughts. And convince herself that she really was choosing the least evil option there was. Events of the passing day were flowing through her head, mixing with the data she’s gathered before. Colliding. Shaking. Scaring the life out of her.

Suddenly, she stopped.

There was something. Something about a toy that Hiccup didn’t put away. But why would this suddenly seem important?

Oh gods.

OH GODS.

(...)

When she reached the loft, Hiccup was lying in his bed. Hearing the footsteps, he looked up from the book he was reading. Valka pushed herself towards him, as if closing the distance could strengthen her resolve to have this conversation.

“I wanted to talk to you” she began, taking a seat on her son’s bed. “About Rhea”

Hiccup’s eyebrows rose. “Our housekeeper? What of her?” he asked, looking at his mother with a hint of suspicion. She saw that he was trying very hard not to let his anxiety show, and that he wanted to check just how much she knew. It was the sort of reaction she had expected, but it still made her regret troubling him. Nonetheless, she had to be persistent. For both their sakes.

“Hiccup,” she said softly, “you don’t have to lie, or worry about hurting my feelings. I know she was like a mother to you”

He gave her a slightly cautious look. Understandable, as their relationship was still very much a work in progress, and she probably didn’t rank that high on his list of trusted confidantes. Then, after a brief hesitation, he let out a weary sigh.

“I thought she was” he admitted, his remorse evident. “But now I know she was just doing her job. She never showed it, because she didn't want to get in trouble with my dad, but she must have hated me”

“Don’t say that” Valka cut him off. “I’m sure it’s not true”

“It’s okay, Mom” he offered her a weak smile. “I’ve done my mourning and now I'm fine. Wherever she is, I hope she's alright. But I don't consider her family anymore. Right now she is just somebody that I used to know”

Valka felt a twinge of conscience. This poor child has already suffered so much because of her, and here she was, about to hurt him yet again. She hated having to do this, but acknowledged that some wound had to be ripped open in order to heal properly.

“You cried for her” she revealed.

Hiccup blinked in surprise. “What?”

“Back at the Sanctuary, you cried for her in your fever” she explained. “And only calmed down when Snotlout sung to you the song that Rhea used to sing to you. This was that thing that he did to you that he didn’t want me to speak of”

Hiccup looked puzzled. “Snotlout sung to me? Really?”

“Yes” confirmed his mother. “Fear and doubt not allowed, and so on. He sung to you and it calmed you down”

“Oh. I wouldn’t have thought...”

“That’s not everything” the woman went on. It was timer to address her biggest concern, the one that brought her upstairs in the first place. “I think you said something like Rhea, I’m sorry I didn’t put my toys away, please don't go. Hiccup do you blame yourself for what happened to Rhea?”

Hiccup’s jaw dropped open. “I... no,” he mumbled in panic, “it’s not... I know it was an accident”

Valka grabbed his hand and looked him in the eyes. “What you know doesn’t always match what you feel. I know from experience”

Hiccup considered her with mild dread. She offered him a reassuring smile. He studied her face for a few more tense moments, his hand stiff in hers. For Valka, it felt like eternity, an eternity of self-loath, self-doubt and general anxiety, before her son’s hand begun to feel warm again. An eternity, in which she had to put on a brave face, and provide him the comfort he needed. If Hiccup blamed himself for what had happened to Rhea, even subconsciously, she had to assist him in letting in out. Cure him. Act like a mother. And don’t let her own insecurities and regrets get in the way.

Finally, after gods know how long, Hiccup drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I’ll... tell you” he decided, sounding resigned. “Just please, promise you won’t get angry”

Valka did her best to maintain the aura of reassurance. It seemed they were making progress, and she didn’t want to jeopardize that. “I promise”

The Hooligan heir gave his mother an acknowledging nod. Then, after a moment of hesitation, begun to narrate.

“When I was little... well, littler, I was afraid of dragons. Seems so bizarre right now, after everything that happened, but I was” he admitted, a bit contemptuously.

“One day dad gave me this toy. A little stuffed dragon. He said that you had made it for me. That didn’t matter to me. I was so scarred I wouldn't touch this thing. I kept it at the very bottom of my toys' box”

He paused and searched his mother’s face. She was listening attentively.

“One day Snotlout found it” Hiccup went on. “When he discovered how scared I was of it, he used it to torment me. I ran to Rhea for help. She told me that toy was harmless. She smashed it against the pillar a couple of times, then threw it up and let it fall to the ground. All to prove that the dragon wouldn't defend itself, no matter what she did. I watched this and was scarred. For some reason I was sure that toy would do something to her. Something bad. She then kicked it to the corner of the room and said it would remain there until I gathered the courage to pick it up”

The Hooligan heir pressed his lips together for a moment.

“The following night she fell to the hearth” he revealed, grimacing at the memory. “I was sure that the toy was to blame. When dad took me fishing, I secretly took the thing with. And threw it far into the sea. That day I decided I would become a dragon killer. So that no dragon ever hurt the people I loved. I had lost my mother to a dragon. And the woman I loved like a mother left because of a toy dragon. It was stupid, I know, but I had told myself that this toy was the reason Rhea wasn’t there anymore”

Agitated, he met Valka’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I know you had made that toy for me”

“Nevermind the toy” she told him hastily. “I’ll make you another one. If you would have it, that is. But that's not the point. I just wanted to be sure you are at peace with yourself” she assured as she reached for his face. Her precious child, who felt he needed to apologize to her, even thought everything that had happened to him had been her fault. Seeing him now, so vulnerable and lost, she knew that her mission would be for his sake too. To give him back what he had lost. To cover for the damages. To right the wrongs. To be the mother he needed. To try her hardest. And think of his pain before her own.

Firm in her resolve, Valka addressed her son gently.

“I may not be the person who told you bedtime stories or taught you songs, but I do know how it is to feel down. To go back and forth between shame of myself and anger at the world. I have soared to the highest heights, but I have also seen the darkest of the dark. And I promise, with all that I know, with all that I am, I will always do my best to help you cope with whatever problem you’re facing. If you so wish”

He watched her intently. With earnest, pleading eyes. She smiled at him fondly. Then, the faintest ghost of a smile brightened his face.

“Thanks, Mom. You’re the best”

With these words, just like that, the tension that had pained them has left the room. A wave of relief washed over Valka as she touched her son’s cheek.

“I love you, Hiccup”

“I love you, Mom”

The mother and son embraced each other. An embrace of love and affection, that gave life to pleasant warmth and hope. They may have been faulty, but they had each other. They would work. And fill in the gap that divided them. No matter how long it may take.

“Hiccup?”

“Huh?”

“When you were little, did you have a favorite bedtime story?”

He grinned. “Eirik the Cunning”

“Mind if I tell you the story now?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world”

And so she told him.

As a young man, Eirik participated in the battle of Hjorungavagr. As one of the 70 survivors he was taken captive by the enemy. The enemy chief Haakon offered to spare the life of anybody who knelt before him and swore fealty. The Vikings refused, so they were to be beheaded, one by one. 3 men have been killed when Eirik volunteered to be next. Seeing as the youngest hurries to die, all others began to shout to be next. That agitated the enemy, and they pulled Eirik forth. Now, Eirik happened to have very long hair, and asked a guard to hold it, so it wouldn’t weaken the sword. In the last moment he pulled his head back, and the sword fell on the guard’s wrists. Haakon was so impressed by the young man’s bravery he decided to let him go. But Eirik refused to be freed unless all of his companions were freed too.

Thus the young, but very smart Viking saves the day and his comrades from certain doom.

This story showed that brutal strength without the brains was not very useful. It featured a hero Hiccup could identify with. A hero he had a chance to be like.

(...)

Valka watched her sleeping son in silent wonder. Tomorrow she may have to leave, but tonight she was at home, with her family. And everything was as it should be.

Tenderly she brushed Hiccup’s hair off his forehead and kissed it.

Chapter Text

Leaving Hiccup’s loft, Valka felt surprisingly calm. Telling her son a bedtime story gave her a sense of fulfillment, and watching him fall asleep turned out to be a relaxing experience. All in all, she managed to end this day, which started off so horribly, on a positive note. It was an uplifting thought.

Downstairs, Stoick seemed to be finishing the figurine he was carving, which now closely resembled Thornado. Having noticed his wife, he smiled at her warmly, put his figurine and knife on the table, and spread his arms, beckoning her closer. It was with great pleasure that she accepted the invitation, sat on his lap and rested her head against his neck. He embraced her and affectionately stroked her back.

It felt so good, having his arms around her.

“How’s Hiccup?” asked Stoick.

“Asleep” said Valka. “I told him a bedtime story”

“Really? That’s nice”

“Yeah”

A moment passed before the chief spoke up again.

“So. You don’t want another child, do you?”

“No” confirmed his wife. “I’m too old. And I can’t afford to be grounded for nine months with war preparations going on”

“I agree. This simply isn’t the time”

He said it with perfect calmness, and no hint of regret, but she still felt like an apology was in order.

“I’m sorry, Stoick”

“Don’t be. You’re not a breeding mare. And Hiccup is as good as a dozen sons”

He actually got a hint of smile from her with that. “That he is” she agreed. Thereupon she lifted her head and caressed her husband’s face. “You raised him well” she remarked, feeling grateful and affectionate.

He grinned in response. “Well, it was no easy task. But I was never one to turn down a challenge” he stated, running a finger across her jaw, stopping under her jaws, a challenge of his own evident in his eyes.

Valka took Stoick’s hand and directed it to her face. She rubbed her cheek against the inside of his palm, savoring the feeling. Stoick moved his thumb to caress her lower lip, a gesture she found highly stimulating. She moved his hand to her mouth, tracing it with her lips. Every finger, every knuckle and fingertip deserved her loving attention. And so she proceeded to apply gentle kisses, accompanied by Stoick’s satisfied purrs.

By all gods, she loved those hands. So big and so warm. Capable of curing her from all worries. Always knowing where to press and where to rub.

Tonight, however, it was her soul that needed to be touched.

She directed her eyes to her husband’s face. He looked pleased. Welcoming. Encouraging.

That look was all the invitation she needed.

Chapter Text

When Stoick woke up, there was a tray full of pancakes standing on the table, and his wife, armed in a ladle, was transferring heated water from the cauldron that hung over the hearth to the jug she was holding. The chief rubbed his eyes and looked again. Yup, his first impressions were correct.

“Val?”

“Good morning, darling” she replied cheerfully.

“You made breakfast?” he inquired, gesturing to the table. The woman smiled sheepishly.

“Well, I wanted to give you something good to eat, so I went to Gobber and had him make it” she admitted. “Even half-asleep he’s a better cook than I am”

To this, Stoick chuckled. “Oh well. It’s the thought that counts”

Valka placed a basin on the table. “I did heat some water on my own, though” she said, pouring the content of the jug into the basin. “Here. Clean yourself up before breakfast. And don’t take too long. Hiccup should be waking up soon, and I’d rather he didn’t see anything out of ordinary”

The chief grinned, knowing what she was alluding to. “Of course, my love”

(...)

What followed was a perfectly peaceful morning. The family had breakfast in good moods and the atmosphere of cheerfulness. Valka mentioned how she had Cloudjumper catch some fish and share with Thornado and Toothless. Hiccup laughed it must have been why Toothless didn’t wake him up by jumping on the roof. Stoick stated it was time to prepare the Snoggletog tree. Hiccup suggested making some new decorations, to increase the number of dragon themed element in the village. He asked Valka what she thought. She didn’t have any ideas, but promised to think about it. Afterwards they all cleaned the dishes and put them away.

Then, sadly, came that wretched moment when Valka had to draw one big, thick, red line, marking the end of family idyll and the start of family drama.

“Wait. I’d like you to stay seated for a while. There is something I need to tell you”

Her husband and son looked at her with puzzlement, but went along with the request.

The Dragon Whisperer took a deep breath and recited the speech she had been practicing in her head for half of the night.

“I have to leave. For a couple of days. I’ve come across a piece of information I need to verify. Please don’t ask me what it is, I’m not going to tell you. If it proves to be false, I will have troubled you for no reason. I will handle this myself, and I’ll explain everything to you when I get back. Before Snoggletog. I promise”

Hiccup and Stoick were taken aback.

Valka resisted the urge to keep blurting out explanations. She’d end up repeating herself or revealing more than she absolutely had to. No, the message she delivered was carefully prepared, coherent and straight to the point. She as much thought to it as humanly possible. Now it was the men’s turn to speak.

It was Hiccup who voiced his disbelief first. “You want to leave? Now?”

“I’m afraid so” nodded Valka. “This cannot wait”

Her husband and son stole another look at one another and returned to staring at her.

“But...” blurted Hiccup, “it’s almost Snoggletog”

“I know and I’m sorry”

At this point, Stoick became agitated. “Val, what’s going on? Is it the Bog Burglars? What did they do this time?”

“Absolutely nothing” she said hurriedly. “I need to verify some information, and that’s all there is to it”

This was the strategy she had decided on – to keep it simple. To repeat the same basic explanation. And hope her boys manage to register at least this much before their anger blinds them to anything she might say yet.

But Stoick’s reaction was far from anger. He placed his hand on top of hers and addressed her with utmost empathy.

“Val, you don’t have to be ashamed” he told her calmly. “I know you are still finding it hard to be around our own people, and that dealing with Bog Burglars must be wearing you out. If you need some time to be alone, tell me. We could always tell people you got sick and can’t be with the guests. That’s not a problem. Just be honest with me and I’ll arrange everything”

As he said that, he looked at her as if she were the most vulnerable being in the world. He gave her his most reassuring smile.

She wished he had yelled at her instead. This wretched tenderness of his was ripping her heart into tiny pieces.

With tremendous effort, she removed his hand from hers.

“I have to disappoint you, Stoick” she confessed. “That’s really not the case. I wish it was. But this isn’t about my social anxiety. Or incompetence at being a host. I’ve come across a very disturbing piece of information, and I have to leave for a couple of days to verify it. That’s honestly all there is to it”

She forced herself to look at him. To meet his eyes. To take in the picture of confusion and witness her husband’s anguish. As if that could make her feel any less guilty. As if it somehow made her actions more civil. As if it mattered in the slightest.

“You have got to be kidding”

The sudden remark caught her unaware. Its sender, Hiccup looked no less surprised. He was beginning to understand what was going on. And it was scaring the life out of him.

Valka turned to her son, a hopeless attempt at comfort. “Hiccup, I know you...”

“Know what?!” he erupted. “How much you’re hurting me? How disappointed I am? How much I was looking forward to spending this time with you? If you had the faintest idea, you wouldn’t be doing this to me!”

This was it – the reaction she knew was coming. And yet she was finding herself unprepared to handle it.

“Hiccup, I will return in time...!”

“For what?! To show up at the feast?! As if that’s what Snoggletog’s about!” he argued, his fury unleashed. “You won’t be here to help us hang the decorations! To prepare the food! To just BE with us! I was looking forward to having you around for all of this! To spending this time with a complete family, for the first time! I was happy! So ridiculously happy! I thought you felt the same!”

“I do! I swear I do!”

“Fiddlesticks!” he roared, smashing his fists on the table. “You break every vow you make! Why should I believe you now?!”

Valka had no idea how to respond. It was as if the world around her was on fire, and she had but a bucket of water to fight it. She was doomed to failure. She had known this from the start. And yet it hurt, hurt so damn much, to hear her own son call her an oath-breaker.

Before she could figure out what to say, Stoick reached across the table and pat their child on the shoulder.

“Son, that’s quite enough” he stated. Hiccup shot him a gaze full of accusation, but Stoick’s attention was already on Valka. And his expression left no doubt as to whom he deemed responsible for the conflict in their family.

Hiccup’s outburst would be nothing compared to what was brewing inside the chief. This much was clear to all parties involved.

“Val,” started Stoick, his tone calm, but dangerously sharp, “Hiccup has a point. We are your damn family. If you are to leave us in such an important time, we deserve a damn good explanation why”

He folded his arms, drilling into his wife an uncompromising glance. Hiccup glanced from one parent to the other, torn between anger at his mother and fear for her. Valka, becoming desperate, grabbed her husband’s hand and pressed his fingers to her wrist.

“I am not being threatened, I am not being blackmailed, I am not being troubled by the Bloodybee or anybody from her crew.” she spat out words like a dragon spits fire, keeping a strong hold on Stoick’s hand and looking straight into his eyes. “I have, by sheer accident, come across a piece of information, a piece of information that I need to verify. If I told you what it was, you’d want to check it out for yourself. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was a peaceful time, but with the Snoggletog preparations and Bog Burglars visiting you are needed here. I don’t want to keep secrets from you for longer than absolutely necessary, so I want to confirm my suspicions as fast as possible. I know this is sudden, I know this is suspicious, but please, Stoick, trust me. I am doing what I believe is best for our family. I swear to Hiccup’s life”

She stared into her husband’s eyes, mentally begging him to listen, to give her the benefit of doubt. He looked back at her, puzzled, confused, thrown out of balance. She stared on, ever as hopeful.

Then, in a blink of an eye, Stoick transformed into a raging beast.

Abruptly, he grabbed her free hand. Smashed both her forearms against the table and dug the fingers of both his hands into her wrists. Frightened, she looked at him, and saw that he was furious.

“Is Berk in danger?” he demanded.

Valka felt cold sweat all over her body. “N-no...” she answered, anxious.

“Are the dragons threatening us in any way?”

“No”

“Does it have to do anything with Drago Bludvist?”

“No”

“Is there anywhere else you’d rather be than home with your own family?”

“Gods, Stoick!”

“Answer me!” he roared, grabbing her wrists so hard that bolts of pain flooded her brain. “What could possibly be more important than spending the Holiday with me and our son? Dragon hunters you need to fight? Dragons you need to free? Did that Alpha Beast King or whatever sent you a message telepathically or what?”

“No, nothing like...!” she blurted, fighting back tears. Her arms burned, her heart raced, and Stoick was far from done.

“And what do you expect me to say to our people? To our guests? That my wife pissed upon her duties and flew off? Do you realize what kind of message you are sending across? You are the wife of the chief, my wife! We’re having visitors from an allied tribe! We’re preparing for Snoggletog! Odin’s beard, woman! You are making me into the laughingstock of two tribes! Is that what you want?!”

“No, of course not!”

“Then why?” he asked, finally easing his hold of her. “Why, in Thor’s name?”

He might have been tired of yelling. He might have realized he hurt her, perhaps too much, and felt guilty about it. Either way, he calmed down somehow. Was giving her room to defend herself. She sensed it in his voice – the desperate plea for an answer. He was begging her to prove him wrong.

Her first impulse was to say “Because I love you”. She wanted to say that. And yet, the words felt wrong on her tongue.

As the pain from her bruised wrists mixed with that of her bleeding heart, this was the answer she produced:

“Because I am a selfish bitch. Because it hurts me less to accept your anger right now and leave you to question my loyalty for days, than it would to breathe the same air as you do and act like a model wife, while secretly withholding from you information of vital importance. Because I believe, wholeheartedly believe, that whatever I bring back from this quest will be worth the pain I am forcing you to bear”

She paused briefly to swallow a sob.

“You may tell people whatever you deem appropriate. Tell them I ignored your orders. Or that it’s none of their business. Or that I sensed some disturbance among the dragons, if it cannot be helped. Just... don’t stop me now. Please”

With that, she finally allowed herself to look down.

A long while later, while full of pulsing pain and quiet weeping, Stoick spoke up.

“I don’t like this, Val. I don’t like this one bit”

“I know” she said, wiping her face.

The chief let out a very heavy sigh.

“Fine” he said, his tone that of bitter resignation. “Go if you must”

She looked up, astonished. “What?”

“Go if you must” he repeated, louder and more decisive. “Just don’t make me regret it”

This earned him a protest from Hiccup. “Dad, you can’t be serious! You’re letting her go? Now?!”

“She wouldn’t be doing this to us if she didn’t have a damn good reason, son” argued the chief. “I am going to trust her”

The boy threw his arms into the air. “I can’t believe this!” he yelled, rushing for the door.

“Hiccup!” Valka called after him. “Where you’re going?”

“To Gobber’s. The one parent I could ever rely on!” he shot his both parents a glance of utmost indignation and shut the door behind himself.

The spouses were silent for a moment. Then Valka addressed her husband.

“Alright. It’s your turn”

“What?”

“I said how I feel. Hiccup said how he feels. It’s only fair if you get to vent too. So vent. What do you feel?”

He thought about it for a moment. “What do you think I feel, Valka?”

She sighed, weary and remorseful. “I think you feel like I deceived you. After such a passionate night and such a peaceful morning, I pull something like this. You were probably so happy that I was making progress at being a human, might have been getting hopeful about the next couple of days, and then I served you the worst punch in the gut as of yet. It must be so frustrating, all these ups and downs” she grimaced bitterly. “I imagine you are torn between hating me and hating yourself, wondering if you’re doing something wrong, or if I’m just that hopeless. You worry for yourself, for me, for Hiccup, and the whole village. You probably want to scream and cry, but you are the chief, and you have to be strong, so you clench your teeth and pretend to be okay, and that is exhausting beyond belief”

He listened to her attentively. When she was done, he nodded.

“Well, that pretty much sums it up. But there are some points you missed”

She looked up. He smiled at her.

“I am proud of you, for choosing confrontation when you could have left without a word. You told me what you were going to do, rather than do it behind my back. You knew I was going to be upset, and yet you faced me and said what you had to say. You are making progress at being a human, Val. And that is reason enough for me to trust you”

She stared at him, wide eyed. He presenting her with a reassuring smile, a smile that lit up the room and promised that everything would be alright. A wave of relief washed over her, making her forget all the pain. And bless all the deities in existence for the miracle that was Stoick the Vast.

“Oh, Stoick”

“BUT” he interrupted her, suddenly serious. “If you aren’t home by Snoggletog, I swear, I am going to spank you. I do mean it, Val”

She couldn’t help but chuckle. “Of course, my dear”

Chapter Text

“This is unbelievable” groaned Hiccup, furiously brushing one of Gobber’s prosthetic attachments. “A bedtime story. She told me a bedtime story and now she’s leaving. You don’t tell somebody a bedtime story and fly off gods know where without giving any reason why. You just don’t!”

He tossed the now shiny accessory into the “clean” basket, where it landed with a cling. Toothless, who observed the piece’s flight, flinched. Gobber, who sat in a chair nearby, did not divert his attention from the bare stump of his left forearm.

“Aye, you don’t.” he nodded, inspecting the skin of his crippled limb. There seemed to be no abrasions he’d have to worry about.

“She said she was worried about me” Hiccup went on, brushing yet another of his mentor’s prosthetic pieces. “That she wanted to be there for me. To make up for the time we lost. She sounded so sincere, Gobber. I trusted her. I bared my soul to her. And she abandoned me. Again”

Overtaken by sadness, the boy stopped brushing and dropped his head. Physical activity seemed to ease his anger, but that only made his grief more noticeable. Made him more vulnerable.

Toothless, sensitive to his rider’s emotions, pushed his head beneath his palm. Hiccup pat him, but could not bring himself to smile.

“What am I make of this, Gobber?” he asked, feeling hopeless.

“Y’know, boy,” said Gobber in a light tone, “women are meant to be loved, not understood” he applied a portion of a herbal balsam onto his stump, letting out a sight of bliss. He then remembered he was supposed to be comforting Hiccup, and spoke on. “Your mother, you see, is not a person you can understand. Not even Stoick gets her. Valka... she’s her own kind of person”

To this, Hiccup snorted. “She’s her own person, alright. So much she can’t be anybody else’s”

By now he was feeling so bad he could swear all of his guts were soaked in bitterness. He picked up the piece he had been cleaning and turned it in his hand. As if there could have been words of wisdom carved on its surface. Toothless followed his rider’s example, but didn’t see anything particularly interesting, either. It made him worry even more about Hiccup. Poor boy ran out of his nest, coloring the air around with vibrant anger, and now seemed so burnt out. The dragon had no idea what to make of this. He purred, striking Hiccup’s palm, but that only earned him an absent-minded pat.

“Do you think it’s because she’s lived with dragons for all these years?” Hiccup asked, his tone full of resignation. “Or was she always like this?”

It wasn’t clear whom he addressed the question to – as his attention was still on the prosthetic piece – but Gobber replied right away.

“So long I’ve known her” he admitted, taking no break from massaging his stump. “A wild child, always running off gods know where, doing things ‘er own way. Reminds me of a certain someone when I think about it” he grinned at his apprentice.

Hiccup stared at him vacantly. “So you’re saying I am just like her?”

“A LOT like her. Not JUST. For starters, you’re not a girl. Also, you carve attention. She resents it. You care for your image, she couldn’t care less for hers. But, at the end of the day, both of you mess up big time. Hard to say which of you gave Stoick more gray hairs”

“Thanks for offering me the comfort I so badly needed” said Hiccup sarcastically.

Gobber rose off his chair and trotted over to his apprentice.

“All I’m saying is, our actions do not always reflect our intentions” he took the prosthetic piece from Hiccup’s hand and held it in front of Toothless. “Open up, boy”

Intrigued, Toothless opened his jaws. Gobber placed the piece between his teeth and pushed his lower jaw up. “There, that’ll do” he concluded, and – to the utter shock of the Night Furry – picked up the brush Hiccup had been using and proceeded to clean the prosthetic piece. Then – ignoring the dragon’s discomfort – turned his attention back to the boy.

“I mean, you never meant to let the dragons take our resources for the winter, did you?”

“Well, no...” admitted Hiccup, his gaze locking with that of his black-scaled friend. Has Gobber really using him as a vise?

“And you never meant to make your father worried, is that right?” Gobber inspected his work with a keen eye of a blacksmith, blew some air on the piece held by Toothless, and brushed it some more.

“Well, I guess...” admitted Hiccup, scratching the back of his neck. This conversation was getting kind of awkward.

“And you sure as Hell didn’t mean to hurt Toothless, didn’t you? It was his life you were going for, wasn’t it?”

“Yes” sighed Hiccup. He somehow lost the drive for arguing.

“There ya go” said Gobber enthusiastically. “Welcome the exclusive club known as human race, messing things up since we breathed our first. Toothless, that’s enough. Thank you”

He took the prosthetic piece from the dragon’s mouth and tossed it into the “clean” basket.

The Night Fury still was finding it hard to comprehend what was going on, only felt that he was taken advantage of. But then, Hiccup too had been cleaning those fake metal limbs of Gobber’s, so maybe this wasn’t a bad thing?

Meanwhile Hiccup looked uncertain. Gobber smiled at him warmingly and pat his shoulder.

“Look. I’ve no idea why your mother left. But I know she didn’t do it to hurt you. She’s crazy, but she’s not cruel. And I’m sure she will be back in time for Snoggletog. You just wait”

Hiccup sighed. “I hope you’re right”

“Aren’t I always?” Gobber snickered. “Now, be a good boy and help me dress up my stump”

Hiccup forced a smile. “I’m on it”

(...)

Upon dressing Gobber’s stump, Hiccup still did not feel ready to go home. It wasn’t only a matter of confronting his father – whom he felt he owed an apology – but also crossing the village. It might not have been much of a distance, but it was an intense one. Full of people at work. Decorations being hung. Families preparing for Snoggletog together. Everything to remind Hiccup that his mother had left.

She would be back in time for Snoggletog. She promised she would. He wanted to believe her. Still, something was telling him that he was being naive. His mother was an oath-breaker. She abandoned him and his father. Why should a promise of such a person be considered honest?

Perhaps he was being too hard on her. She did return. She didn’t want to, but she did. Because he wanted her to. For him she left the place that had been her home for 14 years. Faced her fears. Dealt with prejudice. Struggled. Suffered.

Hiccup shrugged. Valka was making up for her mistakes. Even if it was costing her a lot, it was a burden that was rightfully hers. He should not have to feel guilty about forcing her to accept it.

He should not have to feel guilty about letting her know she was hurting him.

He should not have to fear she would leave him forever if he gave her a piece of his mind.

Hiccup realized, the reason he was so angry with Valka, was because he didn’t want to lose her. So what if she wasn’t a perfect mother? Her attempts at closeness might have been awkward, but they certainly were honest. She did help him integrate Vikings and dragons. She taught him about dragons. Encouraged him to teach others. Beamed with pride when he lead his friends in a formation.

Perhaps they were better apart than together. But he loved her. Cared for her. And wanted to have her in his life, no matter how badly she messed things up.

He should tell her just that. He will, once she returns. Once, not if. Yes. This is the version he would be sticking with.

Hiccup nodded to himself. It was time to go home. And apologize to his father.

(...)

Stoick had helped Valka pack. Personally filled a sheepskin bag with fresh water and closed it tight. Handed her a compass and a map of the Archipelago. Kept a mental count of the sandwiches she was preparing for herself. Watched as she secured her luggage at Cloudjumper’s stomach with the harness she had made for him – a harness the dragon did not like, but generously tolerated. Valka gazed longingly in the direction of Gobber’s smithy – where Hiccup had taken refuge – but ultimately chose not to force herself on the boy. It would be up to Stoick to pass her goodbye to him. Along with yet another apology. On his behalf, the chief of Berk hugged his wife tightly and asked her to watch out for herself. She promised she would, and that she would be back in time for Snoggletog. And then – inevitably – she jumped onto her winged companion’s back and set off. Stoick watched her go, watched as Cloudjumper’s body turned into a dark dot, watched even after the dot disappeared from the sky. A gentle rub from the side brought him back to reality. Thornado was looking at him with a sad face. Stoick pat his dragon’s head and managed a half-hearted smile.

“Guess it’s just you and me, huh, Thornado?” he asked the Thunderdrum, finding solace in feeling his scales against his palm. Intelligence shone in Thornado’s eyes, his groans were interwoven with great care and affection. The chief found himself brightening up, faced with clear evidence of love his dragon had for him. It will not be easy, having to wade through this time of the year without Valka, but he’ll manage somehow. With such reliable comrades by his side, he’ll manage just fine.

Or so he thought until Thornado joined the swarm of dragons flying over Berk.

Not just Thornado. All dragons have left. Dropped everything and soared. Chaos ensured. People panicked, cried, asked what in Thor’s name was going on. Within seconds Stoick found himself surrounded by distressed faces, his ear-drums pierced by a cacophony of questions. Chief, what’s going on? Where is Lady Valka? Is this her doing?

“Silence!” roared Stoick. People stopped screaming, but their unspoken fears still drilled into his skin.

“My wife has left on a quest” he announced. “A top secret quest. She will be back before Snoggletog. That is all I have to say”

Screams and moans erupted with double force. Stoick could barely stop himself from joining the frustrated choir. If anybody had reasons to complain, it was him. He was stabbed in the back, punched in the gut, by his own wife no less. Alas, why should anybody feel for him, if he had made a conscious choice to keep that woman by his side? Anything Valka did to the village she did because he let her. At the end of the day, it was him who had to take the credit.

Gods help this woman once he gets his hands on her.

He started to walk, taking heavy steps. People parted in front of him, but the cacophony still filled his ears. He pushed forward, his anger brewing. He needed to get home. To close himself in his own four walls. To think. To try and make sense out of this. To somehow defend the thesis that painted Valka as innocent of the dragons’ strange behavior.

Odin’s beard, he wanted to trust her. But she was making it so damn hard.

(...)

Stoick ordered Spitelout and Phlegma the Fierce to keep an eye on the Bog Burglars – to take notice of their conversations, theories, jokes, drunken confessions, anything that could indicate they knew more than they were willing to admit – and report back to him. Burnthair and Hoark the Haggard were given the same instructions, only in reference to their own tribe. Neither pair has so far reported anything remotely useful. Bog Burglars were a little taken aback by the recent events, but generally kept their cool and waited for the situation to unfold. Berkians were gloomy and upset, many claiming that Snoggletog was ruined. Only Mildew argued that they have been perfectly happy celebrating without dragons for generations, and he preferred things to stay this way (He also speculated that Valka must have been after the dragons from the start, and would not be coming back unless to take over Berk, but Stoick’s agents had the mercy to withhold this piece of information from their chief).

Meanwhile Stoick locked himself in his house and racked his brain, trying to remember every bit of information he had managed to obtain from Valka before she left. He was especially focused on what she revealed while he was feeling her pulse. Valka was not a particularly convincing liar, at least not in his eyes.

He knew that Valka acted out of her own volition. That there was a piece of information she came across by accident and needed to verify. It had nothing to do with Bog Burglars, Drago Bludvist, or dragons. So why did the dragons leave?

They looked like it was beyond their control. Like some mysterious force was calling them. Could there be another Queen or King?

But Valka said Berk was not in danger. That she said when Stoick was feeling her pulse.

By gods, she used to be so straightforward when they were young. She never wrapped wool around his eyes. Sure, that did cause frictions between them, but at least he never once doubted her honesty.

As Stoick walked around the hearth, groaning and rubbing his temples, Gobber sat at the table and kept cool. He arrived as fast as he could – right after he had saved Hiccup from the agitated crowd – knowing his presence was absolutely necessary to keep this family from going over the edge. And gods, was he right. Even Toothless was unusually anxious. Ever since the other dragons have left, he’s been occupying the roof, groaning and staring longingly into the sky. The Night Fury obviously missed his winged brethren and yearned to follow their trail, but that was impossible without Hiccup’s assistance. Thus, on top of everything else, the lad had to worry about his black-scaled friend.

This had to be their worst crisis since Hiccup’s escape from the arena.

But well, no crisis will solve itself. Thus, in spite of the temptation to remain silent, Gobber spoke up.

“You know, Valka’s disappearing and the dragons’ disappearing don’t have to be related. You thought about that?”

“Of course I have” growled Stoick. Then, instantly regretting such a harsh response, let out a heavy sigh. When he spoke up next, his tone was weary. “I want to believe she’s innocent, Gobber. Gods know I do” he confessed, making no effort to hide the depth of his anguish. “But what good is my wanting when all of my people condemned her right away? If they say yes, and I say no, what does that make me?”

Gobber shrugged. “Assertive”

“A fool”

“Neh. A fool jumps to conclusions. You, on the other hand, explore the possibilities” It was a poor attempt of consolation, and the blacksmith realized it, but he had to start with something. It’s not like his nonsensical babbling could make the situation any worse. “Consider this: even if Valka did have anything to do with the dragons’ disappearing, she may not have known that when she was leaving”

Stoick did not look enthusiastic, but refrained from commenting. Thus, Gobber continued.

“Let’s assume Valka is verifying that rumor or whatever. It turns out to be a little harder than she had thought, and that makes her worried. So Cloudjumper, seeing how she’s worried, sends for reinforcements. He pretty much took charge after we killed the beast. He could do that” the blacksmith smiled, deciding he liked this little theory of his. It sounded a lot more clever than he had imagined.

Stoick looked intrigued. “That... makes surprisingly much sense” he admitted.

“And that’s just my half-hearted musings” said Gobber happily. “Think of the solutions we could find if we put our minds to it”

The chief nodded, playing with the tips of his facial hair. He was inspired. Half-hearted musings worked their magic.

Suddenly there was knocking at the door. Stoick went to open it. Rather than any of his agents, he was confronted with Blight – an elderly woman who served as the village’s primary laeknir.

“Chief, may I?” she asked respectfully.

“Come on in” Gobber called from where he sat. “Misery loves company”

“Gobber!” shouted Stoick.

“Just joking” said the blacksmith. He was actually happy with Blight’s visit. She was smart, she could help them make sense of the mess they had to deal with.

Stoick sighed and invited the guest in. The woman thanked him and got down to business.

“Mildew is saying we’ve been happy celebrating Snoggletog without dragons for centuries”

Gobber interrupted her hurriedly. “Blight, you know you should never listen to what Mildew says. He stopped making any sense a good 30 years ago”

He wondered why she’d even bring it up. Mildew’s input was quite obviously the last thing they needed.

“Sadly, this is true” admitted Blight. “However, this time he may have a point. Did you ever wonder why we celebrate our annual holiday at this time of the year?”

Stoick groaned. “Blight, I really am in no mood for guessing games”

The woman did not let herself be discouraged. “I consulted my mother. We thought about it and concluded there has never been a raid on Snoggletog. Not as long as we remember. We have not yet consulted the Book of Dragons, but I feel certain in assuming that we celebrate Snoggletog when we do precisely because it’s the one time of the year we never had to worry about dragons”

The two men stared at her in profound silence. She watched them with a light smile on her face, and the faintest gleam of pride in her eyes.

“What is happening now is nothing out of ordinary. This is how it’s always been. Only we never considered it an inconvenience”

“So the dragons will return?”

Startled, the three of them looked up. Hiccup descended from the stairs, keeping a hand on the wall for support. His eyes were focused on Blight, and concern was painted on his face.

The elderly lady gave him a reassuring smile. “Yes, Hiccup. They will. They always have”

The boy approached her, emitting an aura of frail, carefully blossoming hope. “Could you ask Gothi how soon we may expect the dragons’ return?”

Blight sighed. “I could, of course. But I’m afraid they won’t be back until after Destructive Winter”

“Oh”

“But then,” she added in a livelier tone, “I never wander around in this time of the year. For all I know, there may be a dragon or two fooling around when we are busy keeping ourselves from freezing to death”

Hiccup considered this. “There is somebody who’s always wandering about in Destructive Winter. She may know something” he decided.

Blight nodded approvingly. “She may indeed”

“I am going to talk to her” the boy declared, his spirits rising.

“By all means, do” agreed the laeknir. She then put a hand on Hiccup’s shoulder. “But I must ask you to come to my house first. I have a problem that requires your immediate attention” she confessed.

The Tribe’s heir was puzzled. “What is it?”

Blight’s face showed deep concern. “It’s about Rusty’s dragon. She’s soundly asleep, as she always is during the day, but I worry what she may do once she awakens. She is a dragon, after all”

Realization dawned on Hiccup’s face. “The Speed Stinger”

Of course. Night – the Speed Stinger Valka had brought to Berk – lived with the laeknar now. As a flightless dragon, she could not leave Berk. She could not go where the others have gone. Just like Toothless. Toothless, who was jumping on the roof, groaning, and displaying signs of anxiety. If Night feels the same kind of instinct the winged dragons do, she may act up. And potentially paralyze everyone on the island.

A new anxiety filled the room as everybody realized what a big problem they may be dealing with.

“I know she’s a good dragon” said Blight, sounding as if she felt obliged to apologize. “She’s never caused us any problems. It’s just... I don’t want anybody to get hurt”

“I see” Hiccup nodded in acknowledgement. He could sympathize with the elderly lady’s concerns. As much as he liked dragons, he knew they could be dangerous. And unpredictable. And Speed Stinger was not a species typical to Berk. It was only natural to be vary of them, especially after today.

Only that the natural reaction may not always be the proper reaction.

The wheels in Hiccup’s head turned. Night was not just a random Speed Stinger. She was a Speed Stinger whom his mother had brought to Berk. A Speed Stinger she saved after she had lost her pack. A Speed Stinger she had nursed to health, bonded with, and whom she trusted to act properly around people. That should mean something. Right?

The boy shook his head. A few minutes ago he had been certain that his mother had fooled him. That she was responsible for the disappearance of dragons. Now he knew the accusation was unjust. It made him feel relieved and guilty at the same time. He was her son, he should be defending her. Believing in her. And he condemned her, just like everybody else. Then, mere minutes later, he was about to make the same mistake and accuse her of all the worst intentions right away.

No, he decided. Not this time. Valka was crazy, but she was not cruel. If she said Berk was not in danger, he will believe her. If she knew the dragons would, at some point, leave for no apparent reason, and made no effort to prepare the villagers in advance, she must have been certain there was no need for precautions. If there was a risk of Night getting out of hand, Valka would have at least warned Hiccup. She would have prepared him to deal with the problem. If she hadn’t, there was no problem to deal with.

Confident in his reasoning, the Hooligan heir met the laeknir’s eyes.

“I am going to be there when the sun sets” he declared firmly. “But you don’t need to worry. Night won’t hurt you”

Blight did not seem entirely convinced. “Are you sure?”

“I am sure” confirmed Hiccup. “Speed Stingers are family-oriented, and you and Rusty are Night’s family now. She won’t hurt you. She won’t hurt anybody. This is what my mother believed in, and I’m going to believe in her”

He spoke with relaxed confidence that surprised even him. He felt as if a terrible curse was being lifted with every word he said. As if this simple declaration washed away the worries this day had brought. As if everything would be alright.

Blight gave him a shy, joyous smile. “Thank you, Hiccup. That is good to hear. Still, I am going to appreciate you being there when Night wakes up. Just in case”

“Of course” he agreed.

The guest considered him for a few more seconds, her gaze bringing to mind the image of a loving grandmother.

“I shall be going then” she decided. “I will be seeing you later, Hiccup”

Suddenly Stoick spoke up. “Blight”

The woman stopped in her tracks. “Yes?”

The chief opened his mouth, but no words came. After a few seconds of hesitation, he waved his hand. “No, nevermind. Gods be with you, Blight”

The woman smiled. “Gods be with you, chief” she replied and left.

You see, Stoick remembered that Valka had visited the laeknar the day before, and wanted to ask what they talked about. On the second thought, however, he decided against inquiring. For one thing, Blight was very strict about confidentiality – she wouldn’t tell him anything. Secondly, he figured there was no point in fanning the flames of his paranoia again. Valka had asked him to trust her, and trust her he would. No matter how foolish it may seem to anybody else. If his hopes are shattered and his good will thrown into his face, then so be it. The world won’t end.

Sitting in his chair, Gobber nodded in approval. One more crisis has been solved.

(...)

Another snowball exploded mid-air.

It was a game they played. Rusty threw, and Night received. The Speed Stinger watched attentively as her human formed the balls, took a swing, and pitched. So far every single shot was reduced to white debris way before the ground level.

Hiccup, who observed the scene, could not brig himself to be happy for the pair. The fact that Night didn’t act up or try anything funny was reassuring – the chief’s son certainly appreciated having one problem less to worry about. Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about Toothless, who, unlike Night, was far from being okay. The Night Fury was visibly restless. He climbed onto the roof and refused to get down, his gaze fixed firmly on the horizon. All the time he alternated between shivering and jumping. If he took a break from pacing, he groaned. It tore Hiccup’s heart, both the visuals and the acoustics. Yet, what troubled him the most was his own anxiety.

Toothless wanted to get away from him.

It didn’t matter that all other dragons (sans Night) have left. Hiccup was not okay with being abandoned by those he cared about. It was bad enough his mother betrayed his trust and crushed his dream of a real, family holiday. Now his best friend wanted to follow suit. Worse, he was putting on a show due to his inability to leave Berk. Valka, at very least, had the decency to act embarrassed.

The Hooligan heir did realize he couldn’t hold Toothless to the same standards as he did Valka. Dragons had instincts, urges they couldn’t control. For some reason, they avoided humans at this time of year. It wasn’t as if the Night Fury had any choice in this regard. He was a victim of the circumstances, just like his human. Hiccup should be feeling for him, not blaming him. It just wasn’t right.

Thinking about this was making Hiccup’s head hurt. As if an aching heart was bad enough.

The Hooligan heir supposed he could help his winged friend. Make some adjustments to the artificial tail. Or build a whole new tail, one Toothless could operate on his own. Then, he’d be able to fly away and join the other dragons. And leave Hiccup to wallow in misery.

On the other hand, if Toothless stays on Berk, he will grow more and more restless. He will suffer. And Hiccup will have to watch.

The young Viking clenched his fists. For him, Snoggletog was pretty much ruined. But Toothless still had a chance to get something out of it. And he’d be damned if he didn’t try his hardest to make it happen.

Firm in his resolve, Hiccup bid Rusty and Night farewell and headed for the forge. He had a busy night ahead.

Chapter Text

Bog Burglars, just like Berkians, had their hands full. Most importantly, they had to prepare the ships for the upcoming winter. Absolutely everything had to be washed with fresh water, dried and stored properly, every removable element disassembled. There were sails to stitch up and rust to scrub off. With smaller vessels, a well organized crew was enough to get everything done, but the big ones required cooperation of multiple crews. Needless to say, it was a hectic period for the tribe.

It was precisely in the middle of the general commotion that a gigantic dragon landed in the middle of the village square.

As Bog Burglars dropped brushes in favor of items with more battle power, a mysterious figure hopped off the dragon. She took off her horned helmet, revealing a pale face equipped with auburn hair and sharp eyes, reminiscent of those of a wild cat, that shone with determination.

“I am looking for Big-Boobied Bertha” announced the stranger. “Somebody better go and fetch her, cause I don’t have the whole day”

She spoke with a tone of authority, scanning the surroundings with the kind of perception that sends shivers down one’s spine. The women tensed, keeping a firm hold of their respective weapons, stealing anxious glances at the majestic giant accompanying the uninvited guest. The dragon was truly impressive, with two sets of wings and one set of long horns that formed a crown over his flat, owl-like face. It was hard to tell which of the pair was scarier.

A couple of tense-filled seconds later, a bull of a woman made her way through the crowd. Ground seemed to be shaking with her every step, sending vibrations that pushed all fear out of her comrades. She was obviously a prominent figure. She had strong, thick limbs, and breasts the size of watermelons and hardness of cannon balls. However, her most striking feature were the piercing blue eyes, which she set firmly on the intruder.

“I am Big-Boobied Bertha” she proclaimed. “And I am giving you exactly two seconds to explain what the hell you’re doing on my island” she added, placing her hands on her hips.

The mysterious newcomer answered her quickly, but in a calm manner.

“Greetings, Big-Boobied Bertha. I am Valka of Berk” she said, offering a slight bow to the Bog Burglar chief.

Big-Boobied Bertha’s eyebrows swung up. “No shit” she blurted. “Valka? The Dragon Whisperer?”

“That’s me” nodded Valka. “And this is Cloudjumper” she indicated the dragon, who blinked his eyes and opened his jaws slightly, just barely showing his impressive teeth.

The chief considered the two of them with hardly contained awe. “Wow” she mouthed, nodding to herself, possibly comparing her guests with the mental representations she’s carved of them based on rumors. From the looks of it, what she saw bore little resemblance to what she had expected to see, but the fact pleased her rather than disappointed. Her expression was altering between analytical and intrigued, eyes darting back and forth between the dragon and the rider. Finally, she addressed the latter with a wide grin.

“Not gonna lie, I was looking forward to meeting you” she admitted, coming closer to Valka. “Though I didn’t count on you sharing the sentiment. Why else would you be leaving Berk when my representation is visiting?”

There was no trace of accusation, nor suspicion in the question. Still, it could be deducted from the gleam in Big-Boobied Bertha’s eyes that she refused to accept a gifted horse without examining its teeth. Even if said horse happened to have four wings, and she kept on stealing seemingly nonchalant gazes at him – almost like a young boy who’d just begun to notice the feminine charms.

“Funny you should mention that” responded Valka, maintaining the air of relaxed confidence. “It is because of your representation that I came here. You see, we were arguing the advantages of dragons versus ships, and there were some who doubted Cloudjumper’s speed. I have decided to fly to the Bog Isles and back to prove them wrong. And to prove that I really reached the Bog Isles, I had my son Hiccup write this letter to your daughter Camicazi” she pulled out a roll of parchment secured with a piece of string. “I’d like her to read it and produce a reply”

Big-Boobied Bertha smirked in amusement. “I see. Hey, Cami!” she yelled out loud. “A letter for ya!”

A few seconds later a child sprung from the crowd. The girl was small – much smaller than Valka had expected – and very slim. She had to be about 13 years old, but looked no more than 10. She had a wild mess of blond hair and amazingly blue eyes, about the only trait she shared with her enormous mother. Also, she showed absolutely no fear of Cloudjumper.

“I’m Camicazi” said the girl. “You may ask me for an autograph later”

Valka couldn’t help but chuckle. Hiccup did say his Bog Burglar friend was full of herself. “Nice to meet you, Camicazi. I am Valka”

The two shook hands and the older gave the younger the roll. “Please, go somewhere private and answer this letter. You may write on this piece of parchment. I’ll wait for you here”

“No problem. Just don’t die until I get back”

“I’ll do my best”

Camicazi darted off at blinding speed, clutching the letter in her hand. Whether she was fueled by eagerness to get the job done, or curiosity of what Hiccup had written, Valka couldn’t tell. Still, she had to admit she was intrigued by the girl. Surely enough Camicazi witnessed the whole scene and had enough time to get over the initial shock, but the level of confidence she exhibited in front of the Stormcutter was still rather impressing. One could think she interacted with dragons on daily basis.

“She may not look like it, but she can fend for herself” Big-Boobied Bertha spoke up, beaming with pride. “You wouldn’t want to be stand at the sharp end of her sword. The girl’s got some killer footwork, and she can slice faster than a bee can sting. You don’t see such talent every generation”

Valka nodded in acknowledgement. There was something heartwarming in the way this powerful woman spoke of her undersized child. “My son thinks the world of her”

The chief grinned. “I’m not surprised. My Cami is pretty damn amazing” After a moment of consideration, she added: “And how’s Hiccup? Heard he’s had a quite nasty injury”

“That’s true” confirmed Valka. “He had his leg broken by dragon trappers. But he’s been working hard to rebuild his strength. Also, he’s been working on his upper body. He’s made incredible progress with the bow”

“Really? That’s good to hear”

Following this blank statement, the two mothers locked eyes, and for a moment neither of them spoke. Finally, Valka donned a light smile and lifted her arms in mock defeat.

“Okay. Let’s not dance around the subject. I know you want to know about the dragons. As much as I’d love to have a lengthy discussion on the matter, now simply isn’t the time. Bloodybee and her crew will give you a detailed report once they get back from Berk, and I intend to address all of our allies during the Great Thing next Spring. For now, I suppose I can give you a glimpse of my plans”

“I’m all ears”

While the chief did a good job playing it cool, Valka still caught the aggressive glint in her eyes. The observation pleased her, perhaps more than it should. Nonetheless, she kept her tone casual and her posture relaxed.

“You see, I am in charge of training the Dragon Riders. In my advanced class, there are four boys and two girls. Not the most fortunate combination, don’t you think?”

“Oh, definitely” Big-Boobied Bertha nodded all too eagerly.

“So, I was thinking of taking a couple of Bog Burglar girls under my wing. Training them alongside the young Berkians. I have grown quite fond of Bloodybee’s daughter Avalanche, and I can’t help but be impressed by your Camicazi. I’d love to have them as my students”

The revelation twisted the Bog Burglar’s face into a combination of amusement, disbelief, and excitement. “No shit. Does Stoick know about this?” she asked, the challenge evident in every syllable.

Valka shook her head. “Nope” she admitted with disarming honesty. “But we’ve agreed that all matters regarding dragons are mine to deal with, so I’m not going to worry about what he has to say. If he has objections, well, let’s say I can be pretty damn convincing when I want to” she added in a conspiratorial tone, throwing in a wink.

Big-Boobied Bertha looked at her speculatively. Then she snorted. Then she broke into a gale of hysterical laughter.

“Hah! I like you, Valka, I really do!” she said, tapping the smaller woman on the shoulder. “You and I are gonna get along splendid, for sure!”

The declaration produced immediate cheers from the crowd at large. The women clapped, joy brightening their features. Valka smiled sheepishly, discretely massaging the spot Big-Boobied Bertha pat. Even through her shoulder pads, the impact was quite impressive.

Suddenly, the Dragon Whisperer found herself pulled by the chief’s muscular arm.

“A little suggestion, though” Big-Boobied Bertha grinned. “A woman as awesome as yourself should not be limiting herself to just two extra students. I insist you take at least four. Of course, not many can compare to my Cami, but this island’s full of the finest damn girls you could find. Am I right, people?”

The crowd erupted with “Yeah!”

Valka skillfully freed herself from the host’s grasp and strategically neared herself to Cloudjumper. Having her face crushed against another woman’s bosom was not something she was comfortable with. Many men were said to have lost their lives between those boobies, and she could totally see why.

Having caught a quick breath, she forced herself to reassume the role and put on a brave face.

“Oh, I’m sure that’s true” she said amicably. “I’ll have you know, however, that my standards are rather peculiar. I am, after all, the Dragon Whisperer. My knowledge and experience are absolutely priceless. I’m sure you understand”

“But of course” assured Big-Boobied Bertha. “I won’t be selling you a cat in a sack. Come Spring and the Thing, we shall have some inter-tribal games. I guarantee, once you see my girls in action, you’re gonna want them all!”

She spoke with unyielding certainty and a fair dose of pride, while the villagers nodded and flashed their widest smiles.

“Fair enough” agreed Valka. “I’ll have my hands full assisting Stoick, I’m afraid, but I’ll be sure to spare your girls a look”

Big-Boobied Bertha seemed happy with the arrangement. “We ain’t asking for nothing more. You start looking and we’ll make sure you don’t stop”

Once again, the crowd cheered in support of their chief. The host and the guest smiled at each other, acknowledging that a deal has been made. The air was full of satisfaction and hopes for the future.

It was in this gay atmosphere that Camicazi returned, beaming as she handed Valka the letter.

“See you soon” she told the Dragon Whisperer as she was leaving.

“I sure hope so” replied Valka, all too happy.

(…)

Away from the danger zone known as the Bog Isles, Valka collapsed to the ground, releasing the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. Her head was buzzing and her throat clenching, making her feel like she was about to throw up her very stomach. She was only beginning to realize what she managed to achieve, and more importantly – how. She landed in the middle of the Bog Burglar’s village and plain out demanded to see their chief. She withstood that monster woman’s gaze and engaged her in a conversation that could be deemed fairly normal. She could even risk the thesis that Big-Boobied Bertha liked her.

Amazing. Plain and simply – amazing.

She couldn’t believe she managed to pull this off. Considering how socially awkward she was, it was a miracle in itself that her confidence didn’t evaporate the moment she took of her helmet. Alas, this was a mission she could not afford to fail. And so she had put herself through intense mental training. Since her usual self was perfectly useless against the Bog Burglars – a fact which she had learned the hard way – the Dragon Whisperer had to examine her recent experiences, see past the embarrassment and squeeze out as many advantages as possible. Following this train of thought, she chose to imitate Bloodybee. To copy her gestures, stance and speech. To act like the kind of woman whom Big-Boobied Bertha trusted to command a crew of over 20 people. This was Valka’s strategy, and though it wasn’t one of her best ones, it proved to be effective.

Still, it was only the tip of an iceberg.

(…)

The letter Valka gave Camicazi read as follows:

Dear Camicazi

I lied. This is my letter, not Hiccup's. But it is for Hiccup’s sake that I wrote it.

I am looking for a former Hairy Hooligan named Diarrhea the Dirty. She was Stoick's housekeeper and an important figure in Hiccup's life. I would like to bring her back home for Snoggletog, her and her son.

Yes, I know Rhea has a son. And I know who his father is. I am certain beyond a shade of doubt. The man in question will most certainly acknowledge his son and provide for him, if Rhea gives him a chance.

Let me assure you, I have no intention of pressuring Rhea into returning. I am going to present her with a possibility – hold the door open for her, so to say. Whether she walks through it or not is her choice, and I swear to Hiccup’s life I am going to respect it. But she needs to know that the possibility IS there.

I know you are probably bound by honor not to reveal Rhea’s whereabouts. I know she is a friend of your Tribe and Bog Burglars do not sell out their comrades. If you refuse to help me, I will just look for clues elsewhere. With dragons on my side, I will find Rhea and her son eventually. But not in time for Snoggletog. So please, help me reach the woman whom my family owes so much.

Yours faithfully

Valka

To which Camicazi produced the following reply:

Dear Valka

Some nerve you got, deceiving the Great Camicazi, in front of her entire Tribe no less. I like that ^_^

Now, admirable as your feat was, it's by no means worthy of the reward you ask for. You must be silly to think otherwise ^_^

But you perked my interest, Valka. And I think I may be inclined to help you. Not for free, of course. I have a reputation to maintain ^_^

Meet me tonight at the Temple of Freya, so we could talk like uncivilized people. As a sign of good will, you may bring a barrel of honey from the bees of Berserk. I’ve always wanted to try it ^_^

Yours faithfully

Camicazi the Great

(…)

Valka nodded to herself, folding the parchment in her hands. The real negotiations were yet to come.

(...)

The Temple of Freya was located on Nordland – the largest of the Bog Isles. Situated on a hill, it had a lovely view of the main harbor and the village to the East. More importantly, it neighbored a forest to the South, which allowed Cloudjumper to remain relatively near his human as she ventured to get the business done.

Upon entering, the Dragon Whisperer noted the building looked impressive, but nowhere near as solid as the Berkian Meade Hall – which was carved well into a mountain. However, the wooden construction blended well with the landscape, and was pleasing for the eye.

Inside, a towering statue of Freya dominated the view. It appeared that the goddess had been depicted in the nude, and later adorned with real fabrics and accessories. Devoted practitioners have clad her in a full armor, along with a richly decorated scabbard that housed an impressive sword. On closer inspection, these items had runic patterns, possibly made with golden wires. The shiniest of all elements had to be the necklace, enormous, loaded with precious jewels. On top of that, the statue stood in a real chariot, which was surrounded by about a dozen of stuffed cats.

Only the best for the Goddess of fertility, love and beauty.

Valka had a lot of time to admire the temple. Camicazi had not given her the exact time of their meeting. “Tonight” could mean anytime between sundown and sunrise. Around midnight seemed most fitting, but it could be argued the village would be deserted enough for Camicazi to sneak out unnoticed an hour prior. Valka doubted the girl would be willing to wait for her, so she arrived at the scene way earlier than the reason dictated. In preparation for the upcoming meeting, she offered a prayer to Freya – for the success of her mission and forgiveness for the minor blasphemy said success required.

(…)

The Bog Burglar heiress arrived about an hour after midnight. She was wearing a black suit and a cocky grin.

“You came” she remarked.

“Are you surprised?” asked Valka, as she examined her host’s attire. A rope around her shoulder, a dagger at her calf, a sabre at her hip, and likely some more weapons stocked in the hidden pockets of her suit. The girl clearly liked to put on airs, and carried herself with the relaxed confidence befitting a future chief.

“I could have told my mother, you know. There could be half of our Tribe waiting outside to ambush you” teased the little blonde, pointing at the temple’s entrance.

“I doubt it” said Valka firmly. “For one, a common cleaner like Rhea is not worth this much hustle. Also, you wouldn’t give up on the opportunity to solve this all by yourself”

Camicazi shrugged in mock defeat. “True enough” She glanced around before turning to her guest again. “Where’s your dragon?”

“Somewhere safe. But I can summon him at any moment” replied Valka, resting one hand at the staff she carried on her back and sending a dangerously sharp gaze at the young heiress.

Camicazi was not impressed. “I see” she said simply.

The Dragon Whisperer decided to get to the point. “Are you going to help me?”

“What makes you think I have the information you need?” asked the little blonde, way more pleased with herself than it should be allowed.

Valka kept her calm and voiced the answer she had practiced beforehand. “This island is the first place a lone woman heads for after leaving her tribe. Rhea had to have come here at some point. It’s common sense”

Camicazi shrugged. “I would’ve been too young to remember that”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if didn’t know when exactly that happened”

Camicazi nodded approvingly. “Good. You’ve passed the intelligence test. You may actually be worth my time”

Valka eyed the girl dangerously. The little blonde snickered.

“What, you thought I was gonna make it easy for you? Not a chance” her eyes shone with excitement as she started to circle her guest. Valka tensed up as the girl moved with sophisticated grace, casually launching a verbal assault. “For your information, I don’t think you’re all that awesome. You’ve been hiding from the world for longer than I’ve been alive. All this time you could have stopped the dragon war, but you didn’t. Not until Hiccup dragged you out of your cozy cave. If you’re the Dragon Whisperer, then he is the Dragon Whisperer Whisperer. And that, sweetie, is very uncool”

Another grin flew Valka’s way, interwoven with a dash of contempt and a fair deal of pity.

“But then, I suppose you’re well aware of the fact. After all, you’ve chosen to negotiate with me rather than my mother. A formidable warrior like her is way out of your league, but with a child like myself you may remain in control, that’s what you thought. Well, sorry, but I saw right through you. Feel free to clap and swoon”

As Camicazi finished her insolent performance, Valka eyed her dangerously. She caught herself gritting her teeth, and immediately called upon her muscles to relax. She would not fall as low as to let a child’s nonsense affect her.

“Alright, you’ve had your five minutes, but that’s it” she told the girl firmly. “I don’t care what you think of me, I just want information. If you are going to help me, then speak up, otherwise there is no point for us to be having this conversation”

Much to her despair, Camicazi seemed amused. “Uh, easy there, oh honorable guest. It’s not like this temple’s on fire”

“Where is Diarrhea?”

“Oh, I’ll tell you, no worries. But first you need to answer some questions. I can’t reveal such valuable information to just anybody, you see”

Valka took a deep breath. It was becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate the Bog heiress’s smug tone, but she was determined not to resort to extremes unless absolutely necessary. She had a load more negotiations to look forward to in the near future, so best she could do was treat this one as a learning experience. “Fair enough” she conceded.

Camicazi nodded, practically bursting with complacency. “So, who’s the father?”

“If Rhea wanted you to know, she’d told you”

“Then how come you know?”

A justified question, for which Valka had a carefully thought-of answer. “I’ve done my investigation. That’s all you need to know”

Camicazi looked intrigued. “Interesting. Why were you running an investigation in first place? What has Rhea done to you?”

“Nothing” said Valka, with all the casualty she could muster. “She took care of my son. I just want to return the favor”

Her calm demeanor did nothing to impress the Bog heiress. “No offence, but your reasoning doesn’t convince me” decided Camicazi. “Rhea was a housekeeper, looking after Hiccup was her job. You have no reasons to be grateful to her. Besides, you’ve abandoned him when he was a baby. Not that I’m judging you, but the facts don’t exactly support the story you’re trying to sell me”

All valid points, some perhaps more than others. The funny thing was, having her devotion to her son questioned did not hurt Valka as much as it usually did. Perhaps she was getting better at handling critique, or its impact was reduced by the deliverer’s young age. Likely both. Either way, she was exasperated rather than hurt.

“There is no point in me explaining this to you” she said in the girl’s general direction, shaking her head. “Unless you have had children of your own, you will never understand what it means to be a mother. To love somebody so much you’d do anything to give them a better life than you have had. Even if it means never seeing them again”

Camicazi pondered on it for a moment. “You’re right. I don’t understand” she admitted, though it was rather obvious the fact bother her all that much. “You adults just love to complicate things”

Valka sighed. “Look, I am well aware of what I’ve done. I left my family, betrayed my tribe, and turned my back on the Viking world. I am not going to deny it, but neither am I going to explain myself to somebody who wasn’t even born when I made this choice. This isn’t about me, anyway. So, for the last time: where is Diarrhea?”

She did hope these words conveyed her annoyance and firm resolve to get this over with. She’s given her host enough consideration and leniency.

Camicazi, however, seemed reluctant to end the game.

“One last question, then” she proposed. “If I don’t tell you, what are you going to do?”

Valka sighed. She will have to resort to extremes after all.

“I suppose, if I can’t bring my son’s beloved housekeeper home for Snoggletog, I will have to produce a different gift. I was thinking about that shield your people stole from ours those many generations ago”

Camicazi snorted. “Hah! You’ve no idea where it is!”

Valka smiled innocently. “Last time I checked, it was safely secured to my dragon’s harness”

For the first time since they entered the temple, Camicazi’s smile dropped.

Valka was almost ashamed to admit, but wiping that smug smirk off that child’s face felt amazing.

Big-Boobied Bertha’s daughter was lost for words, which terrified her no less than the possibility of Valka’s statement being true. “You’re bluffing” she blurted.

The Dragon Whisperer chuckled. It was time for her to reap the fruits of the last days’ painstaking preparations, and boy, was she going to enjoy it.

“Learn this lesson, and learn it well, lass: do not enter into negotiations with anybody unless you have gained an advantage over them. Just as I did” she told Camicazi, a sense of superiority washing over her. So much she took the liberty of mimicking the girl’s earlier behavior and started to circle her as she delivered the crushing speech.

“See, before I even appeared in front of your mother, Cloudjumper and I sought a Bog Burglar ship and snatched one of the crewmates. A big, tough-looking one, that appeared to be the captain. We dropped her on some remote rock formation and asked a couple of questions. She wouldn’t talk right away – not that I expected her to – so I had Cloudjumper pick her up, take her high into the air, release her, and catch her right before she hit the water. The poor darling crapped her pants and swore to tell me everything I wanted to know, as long as I let her go. I suppose no training ever could have prepared her for this sort of torture”

Those were some intense moments, Valka had to admit. A truly composed warrior might have connected the dots and identified her as the Dragon Whisperer of Berk. Fortunately, there were still Bog Burglars who hadn’t heard of her glorious return. That, or the element of surprise worked in her favor and her victim’s brain malfunctioned. Either way, the gamble paid off. Thinking about it now, she couldn’t help swelling with pride.

“I could have asked her where to look for Rhea,” she said in Camicazi’s general direction, “but I decided a random Bog Burglar had a higher chance of knowing where to look for the famous shield than a travelling cleaner, so this is what I inquired. My victim claimed it was in Freya’s chariot. She stood by this even when I threatened to incarnate her if the shield wasn’t there. Same is true for the two Bogs I questioned afterwards, to be extra sure. Not the safest location possible, but it made sense. Only the best for the goddess of fertility, love, and beauty. I have thus landed in this very location last night and took the liberty to take the shield before appearing in front of your mother the following morning. So, as you see, I have all along had a little something up my sleeve. Feel free to clap and swoon”

Satisfied with herself, the Dragon Whisperer stood with hands on her hips and looked at her young victim. Camicazi was still as a pillar of salt, and her expression so shocked it almost looked comical. Valka smirked, admiring the effect of her efforts. The child stared at her for a long, long while, but she didn’t mind the wait. The picture was well worth engraving in her memory.

Finally, Camicazi moved. A smile curled up her lip. Then she snorted. Then she broke into a fit of hysterical laughter.

“Girl, you’ve got me good” she managed through giggles. “Very, very good. Oh wow”

After a brief pause, in which she caught her breath, she met the older woman’s eyes with happy tears in her own. Therein Valka caught a glimpse of something that clearly wasn’t there before. Genuine respect.

She knew now she’s won this duel, and potentially a valuable ally.

Having gotten the hold of herself, Camicazi spoke up. This time, she sounded perfectly serious.

“Somewhere in the Peacables lives a farmer by the name of Sigurd. Rhea stayed with him the last two Winters, and was going to spend this year’s Winter as well. I can’t bet my head on it, but that’s your best shot”

Valka’s heart skipped a beat. Peacables! That was so close to Berk! If Rhea really is there, they will definitely make it back on time for Snoggletog.

‘IF’ being the key word.

“How do I know you’re not making this up?” Valka asked her informant. She might have impressed the girl, but it was safer to remain cautious.

Camicazi waved her hand dismissively. “Relax. I was going to help you all along. Somebody put up a good word for you, and that means more to me than whatever happened here tonight”

She then pulled out a piece of parchment from one of her hidden pockets and begun to read from it.

“I was shocked. I didn’t know whether I should be angry, sad, happy, or something totally else. It’s not every day you find out your mother, who’s supposed to be dead, is some kind of half-savage hermit-vigilante who speaks Dragonese. It’s not at all easy to take in. Still, I was curious of her. She explained to me why she was away, and I understood. We have a great relationship now, as if those 14 years didn’t happen. Getting to know her, bond with her, realizing I’m just like her, it made me feel more confident than I ever was before. It’s as if I found a part of me that I never knew was missing. My mother is amazing. I hope to introduce her to you someday”

At this point Camicazi looked up, searching Valka’s face. Meanwhile, the older woman fell silent. This was Hiccup’s letter. His genuine thoughts. He did praise her to her face, but this was not a message she was meant to hear. In his private correspondence, her son described her as ‘amazing’.

Hiccup’s face flashed before her eyes. His anger, disappointment, frustration, all because of her.

Subconsciously, her jaws and fists clenched.

Meanwhile, Camicazi smiled gently. “Hiccup thinks the world of you” she said softly. “I hope you appreciate it”

There was no hidden meaning in this utterance, no implied malice or threats. The Bog heiress honestly wished that her friend and his mother would get along.

Once again, Valka was touched by a bond somebody shared with her son. More than ever, she was motivated to be a good mother to Hiccup.

“I do” she said, her intentions sincere. “Of that you can be sure”

Camicazi nodded. “Good. Good”

For a moment, the girl and the woman considered each other with honest, heart-warming smiles, enjoying the intimate atmosphere they managed to create. Eventually, the moment was broken by Valka, who gestured towards the exit.

“Come. I still need to give you that shield back”

(…)

Camicazi got to inspect Cloudjumper up close – which the dragon generously allowed. The girl’s eyes lit up as she slid her hands across the magnificent reptile’s scales, felt his nose and checked the sharpness of his claws. Valka observed their interaction, strangely elated. Big-Boobied Bertha’s daughter has proved herself to be a tough nut to crack, but now that the negotiations have come to an end, her aura changed. She seemed so fascinated, so innocently curious, so much like a common child. The picture resonated well with the Dragon Whisperer’s motherly heart.

Finally, it was time to part ways. Camicazi took the shield and shook Valka’s hand.

“Good luck, Dragon Whisperer. Let me know if Rhea agrees to go back to Berk with you”

“Avalanche will tell you all about it when she gets back” assured Valka. “Thank you for everything, Camicazi”

“No problem. I just hope you’re right and Dragon’s father will acknowledge him”

Valka perked up. “Dagon’s?”

“Yup. Dragon’s” nodded Camicazi. “The boy is Dragon, son of Diarrhea. Funny, neh?”

Valka was intrigued. So Rhea had named her son Dragon. An interesting choice. How did she come up with it?

Dragons are immune to fire. She wanted her son to be safe from the thing that hurt her.

She may also have been influenced by the fact that Stoick hated dragons more than anything else.

Oh well. Either way, the choice turned out to be fortunate. ‘Dragon Haddock’ sure sounded nice.